‘Truck driving must become a good job again’

July 13, 2021

Mark Schremmer

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If the government is serious about fixing the trucking industry’s driver retention problem and improving highway safety, then truck drivers must be compensated for all of their time.

That’s the take of Michael Belzer, a professor of economics at Wayne State University in Detroit. Last week, Belzer and several trucking industry stakeholders participated in a roundtable to discuss driver recruitment and retention.

While big fleets frame the problem as a driver shortage, many of the roundtable participants said that low pay and poor working conditions often force drivers to search for a new career. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration cited turnover rates of more than 90% for large long-haul carriers.

“Truck driving must become a good job again, and we have to take direct steps to make it a good job,” Belzer said. “That’s the only solution.”

After trucking was deregulated in 1980, Belzer said, the job of a truck driver quickly declined.

“Low employee wages and low contractor revenue undermine freight rates, and those low freight rates undermine the labor market,” Belzer said. “So half of all truck drivers work more than 60 hours a week … Most truck drivers earn little or nothing for the nondriving labor … and nondriving labor is 25% of their work time. Long hours and low pay lead drivers to quit.”

Paying truckers for all of their time

Belzer, who has 10 years and 750,000 miles of truck driving experience, said there is a disconnect between the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Transportation that needs to be resolved.

“For the Labor Department, all work time is payable,” he said. “Labor defines work as service to an employer. Broadly speaking, workers expect their employer to pay for all of their work. This regulation covers almost all of the labor market for production workers. The Transportation Department, on the other hand, allows employers to declare drivers off duty while keeping them on the job. Off-duty drivers don’t get paid … The government can actually fix this.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has long advocated for the repeal of the truck driver overtime exemption, as well as for policies that would make sure truck drivers were compensated for their time stuck in detention at shippers and receivers.

OOIDA President Todd Spencer, who also participated in the roundtable discussion, said the inefficiencies in the supply chain must be fixed and that paying truck drivers for all of their time would be a good start.

“Shippers and receivers feel free to hold truck drivers for all kinds of reasons for their own inefficiencies,” Spencer said. “And because virtually no drivers are actually paid for their time, drivers just eat it. It’s unfair to treat any human being like that. As employers, none of us can have people come into work and not pay them. But that’s the life of a truck driver.”

Link between safety and compensation

Earlier this year, Belzer spoke with Land Line’s John Bendel about how highway safety and truck driver pay are linked. That message is not lost on safety advocates, including John Lannen, co-chair and principal of the Institute for Safer Trucking.

“Regarding compensation, they pay method should be reviewed as paid by miles is considerably different than alternative job options with hourly pay and overtime,” Lannen said at the roundtable. “Paid by miles is not only bad for safety that it can push drivers to drive too fast or for too long, the lack of overtime pay must be addressed when compared to alternatives in the labor market.

“The focus on driver retention should be on the overall package of compensation and working conditions, which would benefit safety. The most immediate opportunities include addressing the problem of detention time, making safe parking spaces available, and overtime compensation.”

Belzer on ‘Live From Exit 24’

OOIDA will continue its focus on trucking’s driver retention problem in the next episode of “Live From Exit 24.”

Land Line Managing Editor Jami Jones will host the show at 11 a.m. Central time on Wednesday, July 14. Belzer and OOIDA Executive Vice President Lewie Pugh will be the guests.

Listeners can tune in to the show on the “Live From Exit 24” website, OOIDA Facebook page or on OOIDA’s YouTube channel. To take part in the live show, call 317-676-6432 at 11 a.m. Central on July 14. LL

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.