Taking Their Lumps

Though conditions at loading docks have improved, drivers still face long waiting times, unfair receiver policies and occasional conflicts with lumpers.

In the 43 years trucker Jim Nodine spent on the road, nothing was as frustrating as showing up on time to deliver a load and being told to cool his heels – often for 10 or even 12 hours.

“The worst situation is arriving on time and then waiting,” says the recently retired driver. “Sitting around all day trying to get loaded and finally around 7 or 8 p.m. they get you loaded and tell you that you have a 5 a.m. appointment some 600 miles up the road.

“Shippers or consignees don’t seem to pay any attention to the fact that drivers operate under federal regulations. I walked into a shipping office, after sitting there for several hours, and asked, ‘When are you going to get me loaded? I got 1,200 miles to run, and my appointment is 18 hours from now.’ The answer, ‘That’s your problem, driver.'”

Eleven-year trucking veteran Russ Rand also knows a thing or two about waiting. Some warehouses he visits will unload or load him within two hours, but others will string him along for most of the day even if he shows up at the appointed time. “They give you an appointment, and if you are more than an hour late, they will turn you away and reschedule you for the next day,” he says. “Yet when you make your appointment, they can ignore you all day if they want with very little repercussion.”

Nodine and Rand are talking about one of the oldest and most persistent problems in the industry: how to get shippers and receivers to unload and load trucks in a manner that improves productivity and doesn’t tie up drivers for hours unnecessarily. Despite favorable operating conditions for carriers, stricter hours for drivers, lumping laws and vast improvements over the rough-and-tumble days of regulation, problems persist at docks even as efforts to improve them continue.

The biggest issues:

  • Appointment times that are ignored by receivers and shippers once the trucker arrives
  • Overlapping appointments – too many trucks and not enough doors
  • Abuse of drivers by receivers
  • Lumping practices that are expensive and, occasionally, illegal.

“This is the biggest problem in trucking today,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association. “It’s the biggest issue in hours-of-service compliance, in fatigue and in terms of driver retention. It’s the biggest issue in terms of driver profitability.”

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Change in the air
The issue isn’t just an owner-operator problem – it tops the agendas of groups like the Truckload Carriers Association, which produced two key studies of waiting times and loading practices in the late 1990s and manages a joint committee devoted to improving wait times with the National Industrial Transportation league, the leading shipper association.

As part of its shipper and carrier relations effort, TCA has developed a best practices guide for loading and unloading. One recommendation suggests that receivers do away with specific appointment times for open windows when a delivery can be made. Other recommendations include increasing trailer pools for drop and hook operations, developing incentive programs for shippers and receivers who load and unload quickly, and making more delivery times during weekends and nights available.

TCA says progress is being made. “There has been significant improvement in our industry,” says Jim O’Neal, president of O&S Trucking in Springfield, Mo., and chairman of TCA’s Carrier/Shipper Relations Committee.

The improvements O’Neal is referring to are recent. When the new hours-of-service rule was announced in 2003, carriers went on the offensive with shippers, arguing the new rule would have a catastrophic affect on the availability of drivers and trucks since capacity was already tight.

Schneider National and other carriers began passing inefficiency costs on to shippers in 2004. Many added detention charges for the first time, while others actually began collecting them.

“Shippers don’t enjoy paying it,” O’Neal says. “But the industry is so tight on capacity, they don’t have any choice.”

In today’s tight freight market, shippers who refuse to pay the new fees quickly find themselves without trucks. Others either fix the inefficiencies, turning trucks around in less than two hours or moving to drop and hook operations, or pay the new charges.

Precious time
Last fall, nine months into the new rule, Schneider National measured remarkable improvement in wait times. “Our driver wait time has dropped 39 percent,” says Schneider National’s Tom Nightingale. Still, the company had to stop hauling loads for some of its clients because of productivity concerns – especially loads that have multiple stops and high-touch freight. “A driver’s time has become increasingly precious.”

For drivers, waiting isn’t just a hassle; it can have serious financial effects. Time spent sitting is typically unpaid – since most drivers are paid by the mile – and cuts into the hours available for driving. Under the old HOS rule, many drivers logged waiting time as off-duty, scheduling their sleep time around difficult delivery locations. But the new regulations won’t allow such shortcuts. Trucker Rand says in his experience receivers haven’t improved that much since the new hours rule went into effect in January 2004. “Shippers and consignees have not changed a bit – the rules do not apply to them,” Rand says.

At carriers that don’t have detention fees or contracts with freight handling companies [see Sittin’ by the Dock on page 24], drivers have little recourse except to pay whatever a loader or unloader wants to unload the truck or unload it themselves. The reason is simple economics: “The cargo is desired by the receiver when they want it – not when the driver wants it unloaded,” says OOIDA’s Spencer. “If they don’t need it right now, they don’t mind letting it sit.”

This leaves drivers in a bad position. If they can get a door to unload, they can typically pay for a lumper or unload themselves. (The latter has been made more difficult by Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, which generally prevent drivers from using powered equipment like forklifts even if they are certified on the equipment.) Most carriers pay a driver less to unload than what they’re willing to pay a lumper. For example, carriers will pay a driver $70 to unload a truck and will pay a receiver or lumper as much as $250 for a full load. Drivers have to decide whether they want to accept less to do the same job just to get back on the road.

“I used to unload once in a while to pay myself – but any more it is not worth it,” says Rand. “If I feel it would go faster to load or unload myself, I still might consider it.”

Where drivers cannot get a door to unload, they are stuck cooling their heels until the receiver makes one available. Recourse is spotty, but fleets usually ask their drivers to call dispatch when such problems arise. A dispatcher will intervene with a receiving clerk. Under the best of circumstances, that speeds the unloading.

Occasionally drivers create their own way out. When Nodine first retired, he continued to drive part time. He had a little more leverage than most drivers because he didn’t need the job to pay the bills. “After sitting for over eight hours at a dock in Georgia and being told that I would still have to wait another five hours for 50 cases coming from another plant, I made my own recourse,” Nodine says. “‘Either pull your freight back off my trailer, ship the shipment short, or I am going up the road without any paperwork. I am leaving in 20 minutes; you have 20 minutes to make up your mind.’ They shipped it short!”

Some drivers never face loading and unloading issues. This is especially true of industries that have adopted a just-in-time approach to freight. Trucks are loaded in a pre-approved window and unloaded just the same – usually by the shipper and receiver. But two industries in particular – food and retail goods – are notorious for long waiting times.

The only actions ever taken against a receiver for violating lumping laws were lawsuits filed against food warehouses (See Lumping and the Law above). On the loading end, some shippers will set an appointment time to guarantee a truck will be at a location – but may not even begin putting together a load until the driver arrives, much less loading within a two-hour window.

“Once I had a 4 p.m. appointment at a certain food warehouse,” Nodine says. “I arrived at 3 p.m., and it was midnight before they ever gave me a door.”

Looking to the future
The current economic conditions and the attention to productivity being paid by both carriers and shippers are helping. Drivers readily admit that conditions have improved. How far those improvements go may be determined by how much leverage carriers have over shippers and how long the driver shortage continues. The trucking industry is facing a current shortfall of 80,000 drivers, and that number will rise dramatically in coming years. So trucking companies will be paying more attention to issues, like loading and unloading delays, that drive truckers from the industry.

The issue also may receive the attention of Congress (again) and the FMCSA. OOIDA has been pushing legislation as part of its agenda for years, and the FMCSA may soon require carriers to use electronic on-board recorders to track logbooks. With EOBRs, delays at shippers and receivers may be impossible to hide. Fleets will be forced to address detainment by increasing fines or rates. If they don’t, drivers won’t get enough miles to make a living and will leave for carriers that don’t face waiting issues. Drivers already list waiting delays as one of the top reasons they change carriers, and it contributes to the high turnover rate at some carriers, according to TCA’s research.

“Once I waited over 12 hours to be unloaded and finally cut loose from the trailer and took the tractor back to the yard and quit the company that I was driving for,” says Nodine, who retired for good largely due to loading issues.

If the trucking industry wants to keep drivers like Nodine, it will have to work harder to improve this aspect or find more drivers willing to take their lumps.

Sittin’ by the Dock
When Dell Hamilton started his first company 15 years ago, lumpers were the scourge of the industry, often coercing bribes out of truckers or refusing to let drivers unload trucks at docks they controlled. Freelance lumpers are still around, but Hamilton says the lumping market is better managed now, with companies employing loaders full time and offering insurance and benefits.

“Fifteen years ago, there were only five unloading services in the country,” says Hamilton, owner of Crusader Services, a Tennessee-based unloading service with 260 employees in five states. As organized services have expanded, freelance lumpers have become full-time employees.

One of the biggest such companies is Freight Handlers Inc. It handles unloading operations for more than 250 carriers, vendors and warehouses. The company contracts directly with carriers to provide freight handling services, and Chief Operating Officer Jon Kitts says where such arrangements exist in the industry, drivers usually find a friendlier dock and get unloaded in a reasonable amount of time.

“There is a wide variety of performance levels at warehouse locations,” Kitts says. “Some distribution operations are focused on productivity, while others haven’t gotten to that level. There’s a wide variety. Some places have a bad reputation getting in and out.”

The reputation often depends entirely on driver perception. When the Truckload Carriers Association interviewed reefer drivers in 1998 for one of its waiting time surveys, drivers said Wal-Mart, Publix, Kraft, Excel and Schwans had the fairest unloading policies. Dry van haulers also praised some of the same receivers. Ironically, among reefer drivers Wal-Mart topped the “most improved” list but also ranked third on the list of receivers that had gotten worse.

Where carriers have pre-arranged unloading contracts with freight handling companies, drivers typically have the fewest complaints. “We offer direct invoicing with carriers,” Kitts says. In those situations, “the driver knows he’s going to get unloaded by a professional at a fair price. It used to be daily supply and demand forces would determine the price.”

Before deregulation, loading and unloading was handled between the driver and the lumper. “You actually dealt with the lumpers themselves,” says veteran trucker Jim Nodine. “But – and it is a strong but – most of the lumpers were in partnership with the receiving department.”

Because drivers had to pay lumpers to unload, coercion was rampant. Conflicts between union dockworkers and drivers are legend. “You know why it’s called lumping?” asks Todd Spencer, executive vice president for the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association. “Because if you didn’t pay up, they’d put a lump on your head. They were shaking down drivers for pay.”

Although the origin of the word lumping is actually different (according to the Oxford American Dictionary), many drivers who drove during the ICC period define the word as Spencer does. “It is a much smoother operation today than it was years ago,” Nodine admits. “You walk in and present your bills to the receiving department. They ask you if you are going to unload yourself or hire a lumper, and they will direct you to the person in charge of the lumping service. You don’t pick lumpers up on the street corners anymore, as we did in the past.”

Further formalization by unloading services, such as Freight Handlers and Crusaders, has improved the process. “For all the right reasons this industry is moving to professional unloading services,” says Kitts. “Safety was initially a primary reason carriers chose professional services. But now we can prove that a fleet can make productivity gains as well. It’s not just a matter of getting them unloaded. The whole process is more efficient.”

Where such services exist, interaction between driver and receiver are better, too. Both Crusaders and Freight Handlers treat truckers like customers and create a professional atmosphere. Freight Handlers even surveys drivers on a regular basis to gauge what matters most to their clients. “What matters to most of them is a reasonable period of time getting in and out and getting treated fairly and professionally,” Kitts says. “I’ve spent 20 years managing distribution centers with employees. People who maintain a professional decorum always get treated better.”

Lumping and the Law
Before deregulation, problems between receivers and carriers were bad enough to warrant Congressional intervention. The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 dealt directly with lumping. The law, which has never been superseded by subsequent legislation, puts some of the responsibility for loading and unloading on the shipper and carrier. At the same time it outlaws coercion.

According to Title 49 of the U.S. Code, Section 14103, “whenever a shipper or receiver of property requires that any person who owns or operates a motor vehicle transporting property in interstate commerce be assisted in the loading or unloading of such vehicle, the shipper or receiver shall be responsible for such assistance or shall compensate the owner or operator for all costs associated with securing and compensating the person or persons providing such assistance.”

In effect, this means that carriers, drivers, shippers and receivers must agree among themselves who has responsibility for the loading and unloading, who will be paid and how much at the time the load is arranged. In the case of owner-operators, this is usually spelled out in the lease contract.

The law also makes it illegal “to coerce or attempt to coerce” drivers for money to unload or load a trailer. While the law is not enforced (a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said the agency doesn’t have any regulations on lumping and no responsibility for enforcing the law, even though the law places jurisdiction under the Department of Transportation), it has had the effect of reducing coercion and giving drivers the option of loading and unloading themselves.

The law’s lack of enforcement is a bone of contention with many drivers and has even given rise to strange myths about the law. A popular one suggests the Federal Marshals are charged with enforcing the statute. Before deregulation, the ICC investigated some violations of the law, but once the ICC went away, the law ceased to be enforced, despite concerns by the FMCSA and its predecessors over fatigue and safety issues.

“As a practical matter, I cannot remember the last time the FMCSA has done anything to pursue lumper abuse on a criminal basis,” says trucking attorney Henry Seaton.

Carriers concerned about loading issues have created contracts that spell out the responsibility or contract with service providers.

Another avenue for enforcement exists, but it hasn’t been used much. Drivers and carriers can sue under the statute, which is exactly what OOIDA did in the late 1990s. Along with a driver, the group sued Detroit-based Michigan Repacking & Produce Co. and Powerhouse Produce in Youngwood, Pa. The lawsuits were ultimately settled, with the two companies agreeing to provide free lumping services.

“We haven’t filed any suits since then,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA. “Those suits were about forcing drivers to pay – coercion. We haven’t had those issues surface in a while. I’m sure those are still going on.”

Spencer says the real cure to loading and unloading delays will have to come out of Washington. A law or initiative that places value on a driver’s time could put the onus on the shipper and receiver, he says.

A Day in the Life of a Freight Handler
Clifton Flint likes the one job most truckers love to hate: loading and unloading. As a freight handler for the past 10 years, Flint says there’s not much he doesn’t like about his job. “What’s not to like?” he asks. “I get home early in the afternoon and have the whole afternoon to do what I want to do.”

Flint is one of a new breed of loaders and unloaders. While he’s still paid by the load, he works for a company, Freight Handlers Inc. in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., and has benefits. Of the companies that back up a truck to his dock near Atlanta, about 50 percent have contracts with his company for loading and unloading. The rest are handled with relatively little issue. The price for his services is set. And some drivers actually request him.

While some docks still use day laborers who receive no benefits, many warehouses are turning to professional loading services, says Dell Hamilton, owner of Crusader Services, a freight handling service. Most employees actually come from the same general labor pool as construction workers and seasonal truck drivers. Some come from the service industry, and some are former independent loaders.

Like trucking, freight handling jobs pay on an incentive basis; where most truckers get paid by the mile, most freight handlers get paid by the load.

“People can work a labor job without any real experience and make $18,000 to $23,000 a year unloading,” Hamilton says. Some lumpers can make quite a bit more.

Lumping, like trucking, has its seasonal peaks – typically August to mid-December, when the retail season is strong. For Flint, who works at a food and retail goods warehouse, things start cooking around October, when Thanksgiving food begins to arrive.

“I make a good living doing this,” he says. “You got to work for it, though. You can’t take your time.”

Flint works from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, averaging about eight loads a day. A typical load may take as little as 15 minutes to unload, while others, where a forklift can’t be used, can take hours.

Having worked at the same place for 10 years, Flint is an exception. Turnover at unloading companies is high, about 40 percent, but still lower than the average for drivers. Demand is also high, and the rewards for hard workers can be great. “When they come to work, they typically have to double their speed,” Hamilton says. “Then they’ll start making their money. We’ve got guys that are averaging $25 an hour.” Others, working slowly under a piecemeal rate, “barely make minimum wage.”

Whether lumping is piecemeal depends on the city and the commodity, and independent contractors still dominate some docks. But for those who work for loading services, pay is consistent, and limited benefits are available. Crusader Services, for example, offers its employees health insurance. The coverage isn’t extensive, Hamilton admits, but it’s better than what most freight handlers have access to.

Freight Handlers Inc. also offers benefits, which Flint says surprises most drivers. “We get a lot of questions about that,” he says. “Some people are surprised that we have health benefits.”

Freight handlers who work for such services also get something independent lumpers traditionally have lacked: workers’ compensation insurance. Unfortunately for drivers and carriers, that’s also one of the reasons the cost of freight services have been going up in price. Nationally, workers’ compensation insurance premiums are on the rise. Trucking companies are feeling the pinch with their insurance carriers, and so are loading and warehousing companies.

Still, the service is worth it for carriers who want to turn around freight quickly. Flint says 90 percent of his loads are turned in less than two hours.

When Flint started at his location 10 years ago, drivers were leery of the new company. But those drivers have gotten to appreciate the company’s approach. “There are still some of them who come in here who are surprised, but they’re happy that it’s an organized operation in here. They don’t have to haggle over price.”

Drivers can still unload themselves, and they can use powered equipment as long as they are licensed. Otherwise they can use manual pallet jacks or hire a loader.

At those warehouses that use professional services, the level of organization has eliminated most of the arguments between handlers and drivers. The only aggravation Flint ever experiences is when drivers borrow his forklift. “The ones that unload it themselves with the equipment and are slow,” he says. “That ties up the equipment and hinders us from doing our job. But that’s the only thing that bothers me.”

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