Cold Cargo

Connie McKay elected to haul reefers six years ago because she “needed a big change” in her life. Now she runs all 48 states and Canada with temperature-sensitive loads.

When Connie McKay tells other truckers she hauls frozen foods for a living, she often gets a chilly reception. She commonly gets hit with a stream of complaints about noisy reefers, congested East Coast cities and dishing out extra cash to hire lumpers.

But the job isn’t the bundle of hassles many drivers perceive it as, says McKay, 47, who has pulled refrigerated hauls for Wisconsin-based Marten Transport for the past six years. Though it is hard work, a reefer provides plenty of miles and it pays well.

“I think flatbedding, where you have to tarp things down, is a hassle,” says McKay, who lives in Edwardsburg, Mich. “I don’t like the idea of tarping in all kinds of weather. To me, reefer seemed easier. Once you get the process down of how to set the unit, how to pallet the product, it’s a piece of cake.”

Hauling frozen food also provides a measure of security that hauling many other loads can’t. “People have to eat in good times and bad,” says John Cihak, 59, who has been hauling frozen and refrigerated goods for nearly all of his 33 years as a trucker. He adds the job doesn’t leave you sitting around waiting as often as some other hauls. He’s gone without a load only two days in his 14 years at New Kingston, Pa.-based Shaffer Trucking.

Reefers can haul not only frozen and refrigerated goods, but also dry freight, providing an extra measure of versatility. “If they can’t find me a frozen or refrigerated load, I’m always available for dry loads,” says McKay, who hauls through all 48 states and Canada.

Hauling frozen foods takes a driver who appreciates a challenge. “There’s an additional responsibility that comes with it,” says Cihak, a resident of Wheaton, Ill. “You have to be more watchful than you do with dry freight. You have to have a broader range of experience with the equipment and with driving ability.”

For example, reefers are heavy, leaving a truck vulnerable to turning over. “You have to really watch your turns,” says Randy Bessick, 60, a lease-operator who has been hauling reefers for Salt Lake City-based CR England for 14 of his 20 years as a trucker. “Reefer hauling can be a tough job if you don’t watch what you’re doing. They can turn over real easy.”

Also, most frozen foods – particularly ice cream – require a constant temperature to maintain their quality. “I have hauled some critical loads you really have to pay attention to,” Bessick says. “You’ve got to run negative 20 degrees, and you hope your reefer doesn’t go out. It’d be sort of embarrassing if you opened up the trailer and had ice cream running out.”

There is also the question of who will unload the cargo. Most carriers give company drivers a choice: unload it yourself for a fee or hire lumpers on the company’s dollar. “It all depends. If you want the extra money, you lump it,” says Bissek, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. “But at the same time, if they want you to run somewhere else [after you unload], you’re tired.”

Many frozen food haulers choose to hire lumpers because the fees companies pay to truckers for unloading their own freight is often less than what a company would pay a lumper service. Marten pays drivers only 3 cents per case, says McKay, because the company would rather truckers rest during their downtime instead of lump. “It’s our responsibility to safely pick up and deliver freight from Point A to Point B. We’re supposed to be getting our rest – not lumping,” she says. “In six years, I’ve touched freight twice, and that was where there were no lumpers available, or it was a minor breakdown and I could do it faster than waiting for lumpers to show up.”

Don Cozine and his partner, leased to Dallas-based Frozen Foods Express, spend between $250 and $300 in an average week on lumpers. “If you don’t hire to unload it, you’re going to wish you had before you get done with it,” says Cozine, who spends his home time on a farm in Yantis, Texas. Some loads consist of 1,500-pound pallets. “I’m 66 years old. You think I can pull that off?” he says. “Maybe if I was 26 years old.”

Developing comfortable working relationships is one of the greatest challenges of the job, Cozine says. “I think the hardest part is dealing with the customers,” he says. “I try to find a way to get the maximum cooperation from my customers.”

In spite of the challenges, hauling frozen foods is a much more pleasant job than it was even just a few years ago. Today, the majority of reefer units are computerized, making them quieter, lighter, more reliable and easier to monitor. Before the advent of computerization, monitoring the temperature inside the trailer was a more complicated ordeal. A driver might have had to wake up three or four times a night to make sure the reefer unit was functioning properly and the temperature was right.

When Cozine started hauling frozen foods for FFE almost 35 years ago, drivers had to “pulp” the product – or check the temperature manually with thermometers. In those days, all refrigerated trailers had side doors, and drivers put thermometers in the product at the side and back doors so they could be checked easily. “Back in the old days, you put it right in the product,” Cozine says. “With frozen product, you put it between the cases. I think that’s a lost art.”

Thermometers are still regularly used for fresh produce, but now computerized reefer units show the temperature on a monitor outside the trailer. These units can even send information back to the dispatcher to be monitored from all the way across the country.

Cozine, an ex-Marine who hauls dual-temperature trailers on a dedicated LTL route in Texas and Louisiana, says he checks the temperature about every two hours, then when he arrives with a load and again just before the cargo is unloaded. “Any of those times, if we have a problem, we can adjust something,” he says.

Former Marine and 35-year trucking veteran Don Cozine advertises for the Marines as he hauls frozen foods. He convinced FFE to allow the Marines to place recruiting ads on his reefer trailer.

The temperature is of the utmost importance because a driver can be held responsible for a load if it gets too hot or cold. Cozine has only had one temperature claim, and he says it was because a driver he had hired to drive his truck didn’t follow the proper procedure. The claim cost him $2,000.

“The customer pays the extra money to have it refrigerated,” Cozine says. “There’s no pleasure they get from refusing a product because it’s supposed to be 34 and it’s 68. It’s up to us to get it there in the shape they want it in.”

Computerized reefers are also quieter, allowing drivers to get a little more rest than they once could. “Way back when I started, it used to be the old noisy kind, so I couldn’t get any sleep,” Bissek says.

Today, a reefer is more likely to keep awake a trucker’s neighbor in a parking lot. McKay apologizes to flatbed haulers parked alongside her at night because she knows the reefer will disturb them – not her. “It’s like white noise to me now,” she says.

But drivers still have to keep an ear out for potential reefer problems, so they don’t get stuck with a melting load. “If it’s supposed to be running, and it shuts down, I’ll be awake in half a second,” McKay says.

McKay’s reefer has stopped working only once – when she was on the road in Wyoming with a load of ice cream. Fortunately, it was February in the mountains, and the outside temperature was 30 below. “I called road service up and said, ‘Don’t sweat it – it’s minus 30 out; it’s not going to melt,'” she says. Bad fuel caused the shutdown, and draining the tank, cleaning the lines and refueling solved the problem.

Refrigerated trailers have also received their share of improvements. Most are better insulated than they were in the past, allowing less cool air to escape and the reefer unit to burn less fuel. Air-ride also makes hauling delicate food items easier. “The trailers are overall better-designed and better equipped,” Cihak says. “In 33 years, the equipment has improved 100 percent.”

But the improvements in frozen food hauling aren’t just related to the equipment. The people and the labor involved in the business have changed for the better as well.

Dealing with receivers was more difficult in the past, Cihak says. “Receiver attitudes at times were less than nice, but a lot of that’s changed, slowly but surely,” he says. “Grocery warehouses, receivers have improved a lot in the last two years.”

Lumper services present in most warehouses make the job easier, too. Most carriers have established relationships and fixed prices with lumpers, so drivers don’t have to track lumpers down and negotiate the way they once did. “The IRS has got rid of all these lumpers standing on the corner hustling freight,” Cozine says. “You can’t pay them cash; they want to document it all for the IRS.”

Keeping close tabs on a load is especially important when it’s frozen. McKay stays in contact with her company, Marten Transport, through a Qualcomm system.

The implementation of computerized payment allows drivers to pay lumpers without cash, have a record of the transaction and receive almost immediate reimbursement from their carriers.

And when drivers choose to lump the goods themselves, palletization has taken some of the time and back work out. “The labor involved has diminished quite a bit,” Cihak says. “You had to spend a lot of time checking the loads. Now I would say about 85 percent of our loads are palletized.”

Of course, not all changes have been for the better. For example, some receivers now refuse to unload a driver’s trailer unless he uses their in-house lumper service, no matter how much it charges. “The lumper situation in some places is getting out of hand,” Cozine says. “With an in-house lumper service, you better reach in your pocket.”

Some shippers and receivers are starting programs to regulate the costs of lumper services. Programs like the one initiated in July 2002 at Southeast Frozen Foods, a third-party wholesaler with locations across the Southeast, may be a sign of the future. SFF has created a system in which each service has a set price, eliminating the wild variations in price from day to day caused by fluctuating numbers of available lumpers, says SFF director of operations Danny Payne.

“It improved our performance on the docks because we controlled the flow – not the lumpers,” Payne says.

A similar program at a company where Payne used to work has been in action since 1997. “It leveled out their costs,” he says. “They know what it would cost before they load the truck.”

The program makes the lumper responsible for invoicing the shipper, the shipper responsible for lumping costs and the driver responsible for nothing but dropping off and picking up a load. “All I have to do is sign that form,” says Cozine, who has had first-hand experience with the program at SFF’s Destrahan, La., location.

“The driver should not be involved in anything but delivering the product in a safe, timely manner.”

No matter the challenges, frozen food hauling – like any job – is what you make it, Cihak says. “It’s like anything else. You have good days and bad days,” he says. “It’s all what you put into it.”


Owner-Operators Plan 9/11 Tribute on Reefer Trailer

Reefers can be more than just a way to haul frozen and refrigerated goods.

Owner-operators John and Amy Holmgren hope to use their reefer to bring the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, home to all the Americans who can’t make it to Ground Zero. With the help of artist Paul Kosienski and graphic designers at Applied Image of Fargo, N.D., the Holmgrens plan to turn their ’99 Freightliner Century and ’97 Utility reefer trailer into a rolling memorial.

With their artists, the Holmgrens, who haul produce and Gem golf carts for Valley Express, designed murals that list all of the Sept. 11 victims. Each side of the trailer will be covered with names of the victims from the World Trade Center and the four airplanes that crashed that day. The back of the trailer will feature names of victims from the Pentagon – civilians on one door and military on the other.

The tractor will be devoted to “heroes,” say the Holmgrens, residents of Shafer, Minn., and 20-year trucking veterans. They hope to include the names of the New York City firemen, policemen and others who died in rescue missions on Sept. 11. They will even devote a section to rescue dogs.

“I think it’s going to end up being quite a beautiful deal,” John Holmgren says. “It’s my way of showing I care about the people of New York City.”

Holmgren will be selling T-shirts to help fund the estimated $38,000 paint job. With any extra money he makes, he plans to start a memorial scholarship fund for children of Sept. 11 victims. He also hopes to organize a tour to showcase the truck across the United States.

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