This port driver gets the ‘shipping crisis’

November 3, 2021

Chuck Robinson

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With so many “news” outlets parroting “driver shortage” myths as facts, it is refreshing to read someone say it so clearly that a lack of drivers is not the problem for the current “shipping crisis.”

The candor that writer Ryan Johnson expressed in an article about America’s shipping crisis deserves applause. He authored a column titled I’m a 20-year Truck Driver, I Will Tell You Why America’s ‘Shipping Crisis’ Will Not End” published recently at Medium.com.

The article, at 2,400 words, is longer than most on the internet, but Johnson covers a lot and professional drivers will recognize the issues he brings up. It is worth a read and a reread. It’s worth sharing.

Johnson explains he is a Teamster port truck driver, but most port drivers are independent contractors who get paid by the load.

He says he honestly doesn’t see how the independent drivers at the ports can afford to show up when the mismanaged system not only pays them low wages but then even cuts their pay by two-thirds by increasing the unpaid worktime. All the while, they still have truck costs to cover.

Getting less than minimum wage doesn’t cut it.

The shipping crisis leads back to undervaluing truck drivers and no one being held accountable for the mess. Worse, supply chain problems affect supply and demand, he says, so companies actually cash in on the mismanaged process.

“Chronic understaffing has led to this problem, but it is allowing these same companies to charge 10 times more for regular services. Since they’re not paying the workers any more than they did last year or five years ago, the whole industry sits back and cashes in on the mess it created,” Johnson wrote. “In fact, the more things are backed up, the more every point of the supply chain cashes in. There is literally no incentive to change, even if it means consumers have to do holiday shopping in July and pay triple for shipping.”

Sound familiar?

Leaders at OOIDA have been explaining the problems for decades. OOIDA President Todd Spencer is eloquent and patient as he explains the issues on mainstream media programs. In October, he explained on CNN that there is no quick fix for the shipping crisis and supply chain problems and an influx of more drivers is not the answer.

“There are backups and congestion in the ports because of demand and disruptions in supply, but what drivers all across the country tell us is they can’t get loaded and unloaded,” Spencer told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. “They have extensive wait times on both ends. If you don’t know when you’ll get loaded or unloaded, you can’t plan your next move. If you want to get cargo delivered you have to get it on the trailer and to the shipper or receiver.”

The biggest issue with the shipping crisis is that truck drivers need to be assured they can get in and out of loading and unloading facilities in some kind of timely fashion, Spencer said.

“Right now, that’s just a crapshoot for too many. You might be talking about six, eight, 10 or even 12 hours. Sometimes it’s not until the next day,” Spencer said. “That’s common in trucking because most drivers get paid nothing for their waiting time and there’s no penalty for delaying drivers.”

Not just in talking with news media, OOIDA also explains the related issues to federal officials. The Association last month responded to a U.S. Department of Labor request for ideas for improving the supply chain. In a 14-page letter, OOIDA listed excessive detention time, lack of safe truck parking and the absence of overtime pay as issues to address. Read more about that here.

Put a value on drivers’ time

The minimum wage was mentioned earlier, and that is related to a specific issue that might help companies accept that drivers are important and their time is valuable. Why not remove the galling exemption of truck drivers from the Fair Labor Standards Act? That’s the 1938 law that set the U.S. federal minimum wage and the idea of getting time and a half for hours above 40 per week. Put a price tag on delaying shipments. Monetize the cost of making a driver park and wait for a load or to be unloaded.

There had been hope that a Trump administration rule would have addressed this issue in some part. It would have required an “economic reality” test to determine whether a worker is an employee or contractor. While OOIDA suggested tweaks to that proposed rule, it supported it. That rule, however, was withdrawn in May. While the current administration’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly noted that turnover is a significant problem, we still don’t know what solutions might be offered. LL

WW Williams

Chuck Robinson formerly was senior copy editor for a weekly trade publication serving the fresh produce industry. He has served trade publications, horticultural journals and community newspapers for 25 years.