Taking Your Lumps

They’re on the CB soliciting you before you even get to the warehouse,” says owner-operator Mark Taylor of Warren, Ark. “They say, ‘Hey, man, you need a lumper today?'”

He wishes he could always say no. For one thing, lumpers can be unsavory: “You just don’t know who is going to be knocking on your door.” They’re also expensive: In 2001, just getting his reefer unloaded cost Taylor more than $3,000 out of his own pocket.

Lumpers are a major concern of 23 percent of Overdrive readers, according to the 2001 Overdrive Reader Profile. The duties traditionally done by lumpers – freelance laborers who hang around docks, especially grocery and produce docks – are now occasionally done by professional unloading services that contract with warehouses and distribution centers. But in time-honored fashion, the trucker is still likely to be stuck with the bill. And if the trucker does the unloading himself, any bonus he gets from his carrier can be less than a third of what a lumper would be paid.

“Lumpers are a real sore spot with me,” says owner-operator Jerry Shaw of Metamora, Mich. “The driver pays his or her money to unload the consignee’s property from the common carrier’s property, and maybe the driver gets reimbursed and maybe not.”

“Having to load and unload was one of the main reasons I decided to get out of the trucking business altogether,” says former owner-operator Dennis Lorance of Lincoln, Neb. “You’d drive all day and then work all night unloading the damn load instead of paying lumpers 75 or 80 bucks, and you’d get paid usually about half what a lumper would.”

“Carriers pay the lumpers a lot more than they’ll pay the drivers, and the reason is they don’t want the drivers doing the unloading,” says Karen Hicks, director of operations for the National Survey of Driver Wages. “But when there’s less freight to be hauled, you may have more drivers who want to unload, just for the extra money.”

“There’s no reason a driver should ever pay to have his truck unloaded, or have to unload himself,” says Gary Green, assistant supervisor of business services for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Sure, a lot of guys like the exercise or the extra pay, but it’s still a fatigue issue. Do airline pilots have to unload the baggage? It’s definitely a safety concern, but no one understands that but the drivers.”

Just in Time To Wait, a 2000 Truckload Carriers Association report on loading and unloading delays, advocated no-touch freight, saying drivers should not be relied upon for unloading, sorting or any other warehouse function. “The less the driver has to be involved,” the report says, “the smoother and faster the process goes.”

“There are still too many receivers who haven’t heard the message or are ignoring the message,” says Arctic Express CEO Dick Durst, a member of the TCA committee that issued the report. “Are any of the recommendations being adopted? Yes, on a limited basis. I wish I could tell you that has been the case with every receiver in the country.”

“They’ve just shifted the cost of unloading onto the driver,” says Taylor, who pays lumpers $40 to $200 or more per load. Often he’s charged an additional $7.50 for each pallet that vanishes into the receiver’s warehouse, on the theory that the trucker is supposed to return those.

Lorance, at age 55, sometimes wishes he had paid lumpers more often. “All the cartilage in my back is completely gone,” he says. “I have limited motion. Sometimes I step wrong and have one of those spasms, so you can’t do anything. But when you’re 25, you’re young and dumb, and you think you’re indestructible.”

Lorance and Shaw have sympathy for hard-working lumpers. Many strike Shaw as unskilled and largely uncompensated – “the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum.” He says truckers and lumpers are “caught between two large and profitable corporations: the common carrier and the consignee.”

Schneider driver trainer Henry Burke of Walton, W.Va., says Schneider charges its customers a set price for unloading, which in the van division is $70. But if the driver pays lumpers a higher fee, the difference is likely to come out of the driver’s pocket. That doesn’t strike Burke as fair.

“The driver who runs over the road for two weeks at a time does not want to get worn out, tired and dirty unloading,” Burke says. “We make our best money just driving. We are, in fact, hired as drivers.”

TELL IT LIKE IT IS. Have you been forced, even indirectly, to unload freight? Complain to the feds at this toll-free number: (888) 368-7238.

Owner-operators experienced in dealing with lumpers say it’s important to find out up front, from your broker or carrier, who’s responsible for unloading at the destination.

“You’d better take the responsibility, when you take the load, to find out what the deal is,” Taylor says. Often, especially in the Northeast, shippers and receivers already have worked out a lumper fee that’s being deducted from your settlement, he says. If no one tells the trucker this, he may wind up, in effect, paying the lumpers twice.

“Sometimes,” Taylor says, “they’ll tell you, ‘Your lumper fee is figured into your freight rate.’ But how can that be, at $1.10 a mile? There’s no consistency. For every load we pull, it seems like a new scheme. And that’s just what it is – a scheme.”

Sometimes, the savvy trucker who asks about lumping fees will be the first party in the transaction to do so. According to the 2000 TCA report, a review of more than 100 transportation contracts revealed that most didn’t address loading and unloading, and those that did gave “minimal attention” to the fees and who would pay them. “The industry would be well-served,” the report says, “by addressing loading and unloading issues up front by means of a written agreement.”

When there’s no such advance agreement, lumper fees must be determined at the dock.

“It’s a matter of negotiating,” Lorance says. “In the Midwest, it’s easier to negotiate, but when you get to the East Coast, forget it. Those guys in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in Boston have it down to a science.”

Besides, he says, lumpers anywhere know they have the upper hand. “The lumpers have you by the short hairs. They know you’re pulling in tired and don’t want to unload that truck.”

Fee negotiation isn’t possible everywhere. Many warehouses and distribution centers, prompted in part by federal workplace safety rules and the threat of liability suits, have replaced freelance lumpers with professional loading services.

Standardized prices at every location are among the benefits to truckers of professional loading services, according to the 2000 TCA report. Others include shorter wait times and better attitudes at the dock. Unsurprisingly, companies such as DockSmart, Progressive Logistics Services and World Super Services don’t think of themselves as lumpers at all, given the negative connotations of that word.

“We’re here to bring integrity to the process,” says Chuck Wall, CEO and co-founder of Freight Handlers Inc., based in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. “Grocery companies today see the difference between independent lumpers and loading services.”

Truckers, too, should see the difference. FHI employees – who must pass drug and background checks – wear the company logo on their T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps, Wall says. “We don’t call truck drivers ‘Hey, you’ or ‘Hey, Mac.’ Trucking is a hard, lonely job, and we treat them with a lot of courtesy. We call them ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. Driver.'”

The standardized FHI rate schedule ranges from $30 to $300, with the average about $65, Wall says. FHI employees are trained to explain each charge if truckers have questions. There’s also a toll-free hotline.

In most cases, FHI arranges in advance to bill the carrier, but when a trucker does have to pay, FHI takes only checks and gives the trucker a detailed receipt, Wall says – as opposed to traditional lumpers “who like that cash on the dock.”

“We’re also one of the only services that accepts responsibility for damage,” Wall says. “If we break it, we fix it, and the driver doesn’t have to eat that.”

Whatever the benefits of professional loading services, often the crucial problem of old-time lumping remains. “It’s still money out of the driver’s pocket,” Green says.

Saying, “not every customer is a ‘good’ customer,” the 2000 TCA report advised carriers not to do business with customers that caused chronic lumper problems at the dock. “Carriers may be better off simply walking away from the business,” the report says.

Shaw is only a one-man operation, but he puts the TCA’s advice into practice. “I accept no load where I must load or unload or pay for lumpers,” Shaw says. “I just don’t touch it. I charge strictly for the safe and timely movement of goods, period. Lumping is a foul but widely accepted practice in our industry that I have made a personal decision not to participate in.”

“We have reached the point where we’re refusing some loads,” Taylor says, but he adds that for many owner-operators, even those with their own authority, that’s not an option. Fixed costs such as truck and insurance payments mean “you’ve got to keep that truck moving. Plus, when you find brokers that will pay you and pay you regularly, you hang on to them, because they’re hard to find. You try to do the best job you can with those guys, lumpers and all.”

Lumpers, like weather, are perennial topics of conversation and complaint whenever truckers gather and are likely to be for years to come. “One of my favorite pastimes was sitting around the truck stop with the other guys talking about how bad we had it,” Lorance says, “and lumpers were near the top of the list.”


2001 Overdrive Market Behavior Report


Experts say drivers, after paying lumpers out of pocket, should document the incident for fleets, feds and driver organizations.

LAW AGAINST LUMPERS NEVER GETS ENFORCED

It makes no difference to the daily lives of thousands of truckers, but Title 49 of the U.S. Code says forcing a trucker to pay lumpers out of pocket is illegal. So is forcing a trucker to load or unload.

Those who break this law, passed as part of trucking deregulation in 1980, can be fined up to $10,000 and imprisoned for up to two years. It may be the most widely ignored law since the speed limit.

“We get very few calls pertaining to lumping, and it’s very hard to say why – whether it’s just a way of business that people have accepted, or what,” says Dave Longo, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “At meetings and conferences it comes up a lot, but not from the truckers who are directly affected.”

Longo says he can’t recall the last fine the agency levied for a lumper-law violation. “If we had one, we’d probably send out a press release because that would be something of note.”

“Every day I get complaints about lumpers, but I don’t get the paperwork,” says OOIDA’s Gary Green, who wishes truckers, after venting, would follow up by documenting their bad experiences so that he can amass files of specific incidents.

The toll-free federal number to call with lumper complaints is (888) 368-7238. Though some truckers call it “the lumper hotline,” it’s the same FMCSA number used for reporting everything from hours-of-service violations to household-mover problems.

Owner-operator Mark Taylor says he has used that hotline with no result. “They take down the information and say, ‘Thank you,’ and that’s it. How you get it enforced, I don’t know. I just know that it’s wrong.”

The federal law that states it is “unlawful to coerce” the hiring of lumpers, like most laws, has ambiguities and loopholes. What, for example, constitutes coercion? Lumpers are more likely to withhold a forklift from a weary trucker than to put a gun to his head.

“Suppose the lumpers tell you, ‘OK, you can unload it yourself, but we close in two hours, and you’ll have to come back tomorrow if you’re not done,'” Green says. “Is that coercion? Yeah, I think it probably qualifies, but that’s the sort of thing that has to be decided in court, at a cost of thousands of dollars.”

Although former owner-operator Dennis Lorance would like to see a simpler, four-word law on the books – “Shipper loads, consignee unloads” – backed by “a heck of a stiff penalty,” he adds, “You can pass all the laws in the world, but just having laws on the books doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

More skeptical still is Dick Durst, CEO of Arctic Express. “I’ve got a message for those truckers sitting there holding their breath waiting for the federal government to fix this problem: You’ll turn blue and pass out.”

Change will come company by company and facility by facility as managers realize money is being squandered at the point of unloading, Durst says. “We have to overwhelm the parties in the supply chain with the logic of making the receiving process more efficient.” And no one is in a better position to document lumper problems for all concerned, Durst says, than the truckers who deal with them firsthand every day.

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