Surprise, surprise: Why ATA opposes overtime pay, and why they're wrong

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It should come as no surprise that the American Trucking Associations came out quickly against the bipartisan bills that would put carriers and employee truck drivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s requirements for overtime pay. After all, while ATA talks a good game about the welfare of truckers, they are supported by big motor carriers. They are not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

What baffles me: The reasons they claim overtime for truckers would be a bad thing. 

First, they claim that this bill is a thinly vailed attempt by trial lawyers to increase their fees. Yet if employers valued drivers’ time and paid drivers for the on-duty hours they actually work, many lawsuits seeking back compensation for those hours might never be filed. 

Second, ATA claims the move would disrupt a pay-per-mile and/or percentage-pay structure that has been in place for more than 85 years. God, I hope so! For all those years, carriers have taken advantage of not having to pay overtime and built their businesses on the backs of drivers’ time. Over the entire nation, we’ve expanded the supply chain to the point that upwards of three quarters of all freight moved in this country, by some estimates, moves under the tutelage of truckers.

The ATA claims average driver pay is near $70K annually, yet average owner-operator income has fallen back below $70K in recent years, Bureau of Labor Statistics data puts employee drivers’ average income (including some non-OTR work in the average) well below that.

What’s 100% clear: This country has grown over close to a century due in great part to the efforts of the American trucker. Manufacturers with a gizmo in California now move those gizmos quickly and efficiently by truck so that Joe consumer in Florida can have them when they need them. Nonetheless, too many truckers continue to hover at or fall below national average income, made perhaps worse now that company drivers can no longer deduct per-diem pay from taxable income. For drivers regularly over the road, that can cost several thousands annually in additional tax liability.

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It is high time drivers start seeing the benefits of the role they play in the economy. We’re not asking for something excessive here -- rather, simply, for fair pay for all time worked.

[Related: ATA, OOIDA split on bills that would guarantee overtime for employee truck drivers]

Pay for all time: Where we’ve been, where we could go

I tried to narrow down the reasons Congress exempted motor carriers from the overtime pay requirements in the first place. I have heard it said it was for safety reasons, i.e. that reps and Senators did not want drivers working excessive hours and being unsafe behind the wheel. Yet if that's the true reason, why not limit truckers to 8-hour driving days, instead of higher hours of service limits now long in place. Researching the history of the hours of service, it seems truckers have always been allowed at least 10 hours of daily drive time, before it was changed to 11 early this century.

Another reason for carriers’ overtime-pay exemption I’ve heard repeated often: there was no way to track all the actual hours drivers worked when the time-and-a-half rules were established in the 1930s. Trucking’s not exempt from the march of monitoring-capable technology throughout society. And particularly since the electronic logging device mandate took effect for most in trucking, we can track pretty much everything anyone does, likewise the time spent doing it, no matter the remote location.

[Related: Trucking's Sate of Surveillance: Special report inside the cost, benefits of technologies

While we speculate about early Congressional reasoning around the motor carrier overtime exemption, what’s developed since is fairly easy to see. I could be off-base, but I see basic greed behind a lot of the resistance to overtime-pay change. When deregulation sent freight rates plummeting in the 1980s, big business used the excuse to further devalue drivers’ time. That excuse helped give rise to the attitude that truck drivers are a dime a dozen and easily replaceable. It is clear many carriers simply do not value drivers' time. If they did, they’d pay for all hours worked regardless of whether overtime is mandatory or not.

Yet as an industry, we continue to give away the driver’s time sitting at the dock as a bargaining chip to stay competitive. Fair compensation is out of reach for far too many when the wheels are not turning --  whether due to traffic delays, layover, or at those docks. When the wheels are turning, zip code to zip code miles-pay schemes, furthermore, continue to short-pay drivers. Given the exactitude of miles-monitoring techs today, such operators might easily, fairly be paid exact address to exact address.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those bleeding hearts who thinks the 1-percenters should share the wealth. They’ve worked for what they have just like the rest of us. But I do believe fair compensation should be the standard, and I don’t think that is too much to ask.

It has been said many times: Trucking OTR is not simply a job, but a lifestyle. You cannot expect new blood to live it if not fairly compensated for the sacrifices required. As I’ve written before, while working on my undergraduate degree I spoke to several young students about trucking, and about what they hope to do after graduating. Every single one of them talked of jobs where they expected to make more than $100K annually, given how saddled with student loan debt they were, the cost of home ownership, and other concerns. 

Perhaps mandatory overtime in trucking will upset the apple cart, perhaps it will force some carriers out. Yet the need for growth demands change, and the only way this industry will be able to recruit the next generation is through change. 

[Related: An argument for an hourly pay standard for truckers]

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