Monday, December 11, 2006

American Truckers: Sweatshops on Wheels, Adrift In A Tumultuous Sea.

This must be the week to write about truckers, with Stephen Labaton's article in the NY Times last Tuesday and now Steve Franklin and Darnell Little's article in the Chicago Tribune yesterday.

Labaton focused primarily on the regulatory cave-in by the Bush administration, which has resisted efforts to reduce the number of hours that truckers spend on the road and working. In fact, Labaton writes, the Bush administration has actually expanded the number of hours truckers can spend driving. His article failed, however, to delve into the deeper structural issues in the industry that are driving truckers to cheat, lie, take drugs and speed.

Franklin, on the other hand, goes more into some of the root causes of truckers' problems than Labaton's article last week -- particularly the fact that most truckers are now paid by the trip instead of a regular salary, making time spend waiting to be loaded or unloaded, or time doing maintenance unpaid. The pace means that counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour. And the fatigue and stress are not only unhealthy for the drivers, but makes the roads more hazardous for everyone. Every year, more than 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

So what's going on?
When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?

It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, says Mike Belzer, a one-time Chicago trucker and now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he says, it has been a "race to the bottom."

Before 1980, nearly 9 out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he says. Today, 1 out of 10 carry a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.

It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer adds. "You get what you pay for," Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a "skilled professional" and someone "from the soup line," he says.


By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a "sweatshop on wheels," Belzer claims. Truckers' income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.

Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or less, according to the industry group.

The result is a highly fragmented industry with "low profit margins," according to an association study.

Out of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or,... they work for whoever has goods for them to carry.
And for all of the literally back-breaking work, here's what one trucker, Roger Kobernick, ends up with:
Because he cannot afford health care, he relies on state-sponsored coverage for himself and his family. They are qualified to receive food stamps, but pride stops them from doing so. In his best year he earned $40,000, but last year he made only $9,000.

Much has gone wrong for him in the last few years, and he partly blames it on freight rates that have barely gone up while fuel and other costs have soared and eaten away at his profits.

He also has made some financial missteps, among them expecting tax write-offs for his rig to help his bottom line. Instead, he owes $15,000 in state and federal taxes.

And 25 years behind the wheel have taken a toll. Last summer, barely able to bend his back, he had surgery. One doctor had turned him away, saying surgery would be foolish since he would return to truck driving.

The surgery put him out of work for four months. Without savings, he took out a home equity loan to pay bills, then sold his truck's trailer and bought a less costly model.

He also has decided to sell his 2-year-old $140,000 truck because the $2,000 monthly payments are killing him. To attract potential buyers Kobernick has had to steadily lower the asking price.


"I haven't had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings," he says as the sun's dying rays filter through pine trees in South Carolina. "Hopefully, I'll catch up one day here down the line. But right now that isn't going to happen any time soon."
The grueling schedule and financial problems also take a toll on truckers mental and physical health, according to John Siebert, an official with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association:
Several years ago, when glancing through members' obituaries, Siebert discovered that their average age at death was 55. In his research, he also found a higher-than-average suicide rate for members and turned his findings over to NIOSH, which has been examining truckers' health for the last few years.

Siebert says he believes such problems are linked to difficult lives and financial stress. He lists organization surveys showing that nearly 9 out of 10 of its members are obese or overweight and nearly two-thirds expect to rely solely upon Social Security when they retire.

He especially worries about produce haulers like Kobernick who have highly unpredictable work schedules. If anything goes wrong, or their schedule is too tight, they lose out financially, and their health often is neglected as they push to work longer hours.

"These guys are working 100 to 120 hours a week, and their sleep patterns are all over the clock," he says.
I wrote quite a bit more in my review of Labaton's article about the structural problems in the trucking industry that lead to these unsafe conditions. Put all of these articles together and you get a pretty frightening picture of America's highways. What are the solutions? An improved regulatory structure to start with, but until the root causes are addressed -- deregulation and the sharp drop in unionized drivers -- we're not going to get very far just attacking the symptoms.