Funnel vision

The industry sees the future of the hazmat labor pool, and it’s getting tighter. If you’ll jump through the hoops to keep an endorsement, expect a hefty premium.

When owner-operator Steve Meyer moved this year from Florida to Amarillo, Texas, he had more on his mind than just getting to know the neighbors. The move forced Meyer to transfer his commercial driver’s license and undergo the new federal background check for holders of hazardous material endorsements.

undergo the new federal background check for holders of hazardous material endorsements.
The process cost Meyer, who hauls for Jack B. Kelley Inc., nearly $100 and gave the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, the FBI and other agencies carte blanche to pry into his life.

Although some drivers would rather drop their hazmat endorsements than deal with this new invasive anti-terrorism process, Meyer has little choice: Hauling hazmat is his job.

“I will renew it,” Meyer says. “I haul cryogenics – nitrogen, argon, oxygen and gases. Besides, I can make a lot more money with my hazmat endorsement than without it.”

Because some drivers are choosing to forgo the background checks, Meyer and fellow hazmat haulers may see even more green in the future. If the pool of eligible hazmat drivers shrinks, as many in the industry expect, trucking companies say they’ll be forced to raise shipping rates and pay a premium to drivers who clear the endorsement process.

“As the government makes it harder to get and keep a hazmat endorsement, that will force rates up again and make driver pay better,” says Randy Wasson, vice president of operations for hazmat hauler Coal City Cob Co. Inc., which operates 150 trucks from its base in Avalon, Texas.

Just a few years ago, only drivers hauling certain high-security government loads underwent this level of scrutiny. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, drivers hauling everything from fingernail polish to fertilizer have to undergo thorough checks to keep their jobs. Although it has taken years to implement, drivers renewing, transferring or applying for a new CDL must now go through a fingerprint-based background check. Drivers will be forbidden to haul hazardous loads if they have committed or served time for certain crimes in the past seven years.

Hazmat fleets fear the new regulations will worsen an already critical shortage of truckers. They worry less about losing marginal drivers with questionable backgrounds than they do about losing great drivers who don’t want to go through the expense and effort.

The background checks began in May 2005 for current CDL drivers. Indian River Transport driver Chris Holmes says all the kinks aren’t worked out yet.

“They do not tell you that you have to go to another place to get your fingerprints done,” says Holmes, himself a new Texas resident. “It’s another branch of the state government. Once you move here, you have 30 days to transfer your CDL. Texas has pretty strong enforcement. I could have gotten a ticket. Every state may be different.”

Actually, Texas is one of 17 states that are different. The District of Columbia and 33 states use TSA locations and have standardized the procedure: A driver goes to one of TSA’s fingerprint clearinghouses, fills out an application, pays $94 and is fingerprinted. The driver then completes the testing or renewing portion of his CDL through his home state’s motor vehicle office.

The other states elected to create their own process. Those states collect fees, fingerprints and applications and forward that information to TSA. In some cases, the fees are less than going through a TSA center, but most states charge roughly $100 for the background check and application in addition to their regular fees for license renewal.

The complete check takes weeks, and in some cases months, to complete. States require drivers to clear the process before CDLs are renewed. Drivers who fail to get background clearance before the license expires will not be able to haul hazmat loads until certified.

States vary on when the renewal process must begin in order to complete the background check on time. In New Jersey, drivers have to start the process 45 days before renewal; in Missouri, it’s 60 days.

During the background check, TSA compares any criminal records of hazmat endorsement holders against its list of disqualifying crimes. If TSA finds that a holder has committed a serious crime, the driver and state licensing authorities are notified. A disqualified driver must surrender the endorsement.

And under TSA rules, drivers must renew their hazmat endorsements every five years – and go through the process all over again.

Although the new process adds a layer of expense and trouble to the normal CDL renewal process, the effort is worth it, says Gordon Klemp, a partner in the National Survey of Driver Wages. “There’s a premium of between a penny and two pennies a mile for hazmat endorsement holders,” Klemp says. “Some carriers even pay extra for their drivers who are hazmat endorsed versus those who are not.”

Although earnings are not broken out by endorsement in the 2006 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report, the study shows that drivers who haul liquids and gases in tankers, typically hazardous loads, take home $2,200 per year more than their dry van counterparts and $2,900 more than flatbed drivers.

The premium can be much greater for over-the-road hazmat haulers who pull high-security loads such as weapons and toxic waste. Owner-operators Guy and Martha Dodd, leased to Tri-State Motor Transit Co. of Joplin, Mo., one of the nation’s most secure carriers, average more than $1.60 per mile. “That’s loaded, our deadhead miles and any miles we put on it over the weekend when we’re staying in a hotel,” Martha says.

Hauling such loads comes with its own set of challenges. First, the Dodds undergo government background checks by the Department of Defense, a more rigorous standard than even the new TSA requirements for hazmat haulers – which the Dodds also will have to undergo when they renew their CDLs in four years. But clearance is only the start. The Dodds usually take loads that require them to drive straight through or stay with their load at all times. They have to negotiate security barriers, including those at military bases, and their pickup and delivery points are often in remote areas.

“We have made in excess of $4 a mile,” Guy says. “Does that make up for the hassle? I think it does.”

Still, the high pay isn’t always enough to attract qualified drivers. Tri-State is concerned that TSA’s new background requirements will shrink the pool of eligible labor further. “A lot of drivers don’t want to go through the hassle,” says Dave Lambert, vice president of compliance and special projects for Tri-State. “It can cost up to $150 for the endorsement, and there’s the time involved. A driver may have to drive 500 miles to get to a fingerprint location.”

“Even though we hire cream of the crop,” says David Bennett, Tri-State’s executive vice president, “the smaller that crop is, the harder it is to find the drivers we need.”

Before the government began background checks in 2005, roughly 2.7 million commercial drivers had hazmat endorsements. No current federal or state numbers demonstrate a drop, but a few carriers say the trend is beginning.

Jame Suttles, president of Dana/Suttles, one of the largest tanker fleets in North America, has noticed a decline in the number of older drivers renewing their endorsements. “The older guys say they can get plenty of other jobs without it,” Suttles says.

Seasonal drivers also are dropping their endorsements, says Guy Dodd. “A lot of my friends with CDLs who work in construction are not going to keep their hazmat endorsement.”

Others who might not bother to renew endorsements, carriers say, are the countless drivers who don’t currently haul hazmat, but have carried the endorsement on their licenses their whole careers.

To encourage renewals, some carriers plan to pick up the bill every five years. “We pay the cost for company drivers,” Suttles says. “But the owner-operators pay for their own.”

That’s also the case for owner-operator Steve Meyer. “My company, like most, feels it is my license, and I can take it when I leave,” Meyer says.

The small out-of-pocket investment can bring back big dividends. “They definitely make more,” Suttles says, sometimes “15 to 20 percent more than other loads.”

For drivers who keep their hazmat endorsements, that premium – a few pennies more a mile, thousands of dollars a year – is bound to go up, Klemp says.

“We think that the pool, given the new restrictions for hazmat endorsements, will reduce the number of drivers who are carrying the endorsements and raise the premium,” Klemp says. “It could double the premium over the next year or so, depending on supply.”

Hazmat applicants will be disqualified for a number of reasons. They include being convicted, or found not guilty by reason of insanity, of any of a long list of crimes. These disqualify a driver permanently:

  • Murder
  • Terrorism or espionage
  • Sedition or treason
  • Racketeering
  • Explosives charges
  • A crime involving a disruption of transport security
  • Improper transport of hazmat (not counting minor offenses)
  • Conspiracy to commit any of the above

Other crimes will disqualify a driver for seven years:

  • Assault with intent to murder
  • Kidnapping or hostage taking
  • Rape or aggravated sexual abuse
  • Extortion or bribery
  • Robbery
  • Arson
  • Smuggling
  • Immigration violations
  • Certain drugs and weapons charges
  • Identity fraud

Also disqualified are applicants who have been released from prison within the past five years for any of the listed crimes, or are under warrant or indictment for such crimes.

Also disqualified is anyone declared mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

In the 33 states that use TSA to administer background checks, the fee is $94 plus whatever the state charges for application, testing, transfer or renewal. TSA’s fee includes $38 for information collection, $34 for threat assessment and $22 for the FBI. That fee may be paid by credit card or electronic check at or by money order made payable to Biometric Technology LLC. Drivers living in these states may also be fingerprinted at any TSA location, not just in their state of origin.

The TSA locations can be found online at this site.

In the remaining states, which handle their own collection of fees, information and fingerprints, drivers must go to their state motor vehicle department and follow procedures. In Florida, for example, fingerprinting is done at the driver’s license office at the same time as a hazmat application. The application is available online and must be turned in the day the fingerprinting is done. Florida charges $91 for the application and background check as well as $50 for the CDL and $5 for each endorsement.

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