recession in the trucking industry

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January 16, 2001

Seeing Hardship Through a Truck Windshield

NEW YORK TIMES By CHARLIE LeDUFF

ANADAHILL, Pa. They wandered in off the road reeking of diesel and themselves. They had driven in from around the country, from the stockyards and the swamps and the steel mills. Some had driven 800 miles all day and night to land in this truck plaza.

The highwaymen were nail-bitten and listless, their eyes half closed from cigarette smoke and fatigue. They sat in the "tweakers' lounge," a dreary room with rows of chairs and a large-screen television. This is where truck drivers some strung out from the road, others from pills and most from cigarettes wait to wind down. They try to sleep only because the government makes them stop. After eight legal hours of sitting idle, they were off again to another town, another load, on roads linking everything together but their lives. It was 1 a.m.

These drivers were the lucky ones. They had a load and a destination, and the only thing that was really wrong with them was overeating. It was the other truckers standing out by the electronic strip poker machines who were in the straits. Some had been waiting a day and a half here, just outside Harrisburg and about 160 miles southwest of Manhattan. They were stuck at the major routing hub for all goods moving from points north, south and west, goods destined for the metropolis.

They were waiting for a load and they were rested. But the digital load board near the lounge, advertising jobs in the area, told them what they already knew; there was nothing to carry.

When you are paid by the mile, there is one law of the road and one law only, said Robert Strong, a road-worn Cajun from Shreveport, La. "If the wheels ain't turning, you ain't making money."

Many of these working Americans, like Mr. Strong, have no education beyond some high school. They might read a book now and then when they can't sleep or the weather shuts them down. They might read a little of the newspaper, usually the sports pages. They get some of their information from television, but most of it comes from around the coffee counters at the truck plazas. They couldn't tell you who Alan Greenspan was, but they could tell you this. If this is not a recession, it is close to one.

"I ain't seen it this bad in years," said Rick Hummelbaugh, 52, a barrel of a man whom the other drivers call Dead Eye. "You got so many guys here sitting longer between loads. And out there on the highway I'm noticing less car carriers, less rolled steel, less lumber and less insulation. It don't look good is all I'm saying."

Economists are not ready to call it a recession. The economy is still growing, but at a slower pace. Automobile sales were off 18 percent last month from a year ago; single-family-home starts fell by nearly half a percentage point in November, their third straight monthly decline. Moreover, 178,000 manufacturing jobs were lost last year, 62,000 in December alone.

The trucking industry is one of the first to notice the signs when the American economy is retreating. "We knew the economy was in trouble six months ago," said Donald Broughton, a transportation analyst with A. G. Edwards & Sons in St. Louis.

"Eighty percent of all goods in this country move by truck," Mr. Broughton said. "If you're looking for an indication of where the economy is going, take a look at what's going on on the highway."

Mr. Broughton said that more than 1,350 companies with five trucks or more went bankrupt in the third quarter of 2000, nearly double the record set in the previous quarter.

Industry experts attribute the failures to rising diesel costs, insurance rates and wage pressures. But a decline in goods being shipped is a major factor.

In tonnage, the trucking industry was off 7 percent from July through September compared with the same period a year before. One fallout from the downturn is that people making a marginal living hauling these goods are being pushed to the brink, idling longer in truck stops like this, hoping to make ends meet.

"I don't worry about going home no more," said Texas Terry Adams, a truck owner who wears a beard and cowboy hat and leases his labor and rig to a trucking company. "The dispatcher don't even try to route you home no more. They just want to keep you chained to the wheel. Keep you moving. So I don't worry about it no more. When I got to go home I just go home. I'm my own man."

J. R. Bartz, who has been running his own truck since the 60's, said: "I used to worry about that too going home. But my ex-wife took the house, so I don't worry about having a home."

Truck drivers tell their children about the good part of the job, forgetting to tell them about the bad. They talk about freedom and call themselves the last of the cowboys. They make their world sound as if it were an extension of the Wild West, and it is, in some ways. They see themselves as the last of the unhenpecked heroes, willing to go anywhere at any time. They are willing to thumb their noses at the law and make 2,500 miles in two days if the money is right.

That is the good part. There is plenty of bad. The broken marriages. The kidney stones. The loneliness. The pay. Their world is through the windshield, and when they see a young couple pass them by, they wish they had a bit of that, too. They might think about that couple for the next 50 miles.

Since the industry was deregulated in 1980, the wages and the quality of life has spiraled downward for the trucker while the hours worked have doubled. The new rules allowed free entry into the carrying market, eliminated indirect routes, to protect the carriers, and at the same time did away with collective rate-setting.

Before deregulation, the industry worked much the same way the airlines work now, by a hub-and-spoke system. A driver might run from Gary, Ind., to Detroit and back, and be home in time for dinner. Another driver might then take the cargo from Detroit to Cleveland and so on.

Hub-and-spoke drivers are now just a small part of the overall carrying market. The rest, called long- haul drivers, might now load up in Jacksonville, Fla., drive to Harrisburg, drop a load there, pick up another in Pittsburgh and continue to Los Angeles. Most are required by their companies to work three weeks straight before getting a day off.

Deregulation has resulted in lower shipping prices, but it has also brought down the wages of the drivers. Although employment in the trucking industry has increased by 3.9 percent since the early 80's, real annual earnings for drivers, adjusted for inflation, have dropped 30 percent, said Prof. Michael H. Belzer, associate director of the Trucking Industry Program at the University of Michigan.

Truck drivers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they are not entitled to overtime. The average driver now makes about $40,000 a year.

"Typically these guys make about 31 cents a mile," Professor Belzer said. "By law they can only work 10 hours straight. Then they must rest 8, and then they can work 10 hours again. They have to cheat to make it."

Federal law says that all work time falls under the 10-hour rule. So, in order to save driving time, a truck driver will typically omit loading and unloading time. When you get paid by the mile, four hours at the loading dock leaves just six driving hours, so many drivers do not log these hours in the book.

About 400,000 long-haul trucks are on the road, 160,000 of them owned by individuals. For these owner-operators, whose expenses come out of their own pockets, life has become a faucet of misery with no stopcock.

There are a few rules in the trucking world. Never run out of tobacco. Keep emergency food and water stored in your rig. Stay out of New York City; the traffic will eat you and your time up.

Wayne McMillan, 50, an owner- operator, was sitting around the truck plaza drinking quarts of coffee while waiting for a call about a job.

"Times are real tough," he said. He is barely meeting the payments on his rig. "I'm waiting for the times to get better." He thought about what he had said for a moment.

"Come to think of it, they said these were the best times we ever knowed. But when I got into it 30 years ago I was making the same money I'm making now and I was home on the weekends."

Mr. McMillan scratched it out on a napkin, basing his calculations on a four-and-a-half-week month.

Expenses (per month) Truck payment$1,600

Tires $190

Oil and Filters $200

Permits/Taxes $200

Truck Insurance $150

Load Insurance $100

Fuel $2,500

Tolls $200

Misc. $200

Total $5,340 per month

Revenue 10,000 miles a month @ $1 per mile = $10,000

Net Income = $1,036 per week @ 90 hours per week = $11.50 an hour.

"That's not a whole lot considering I live in my rig 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "And now I'm sitting here with no work. I'm going to lose that truck if it keeps up."

And they talked around the coffee counter for hours, moaning about the economy and their bank notes and the unappreciated plight of the worker. The waitress let them know they were not the only ones suffering. Her tips are down 20 percent. The trucker is the most tight-fisted man there is, she told them. "Y'all sit around here crying for three hours and leave me a buck."

It went like this late into the evening until Mr. Strong's pager went off. It was his company calling.

A few minutes later, he came back to the counter with his head down. He had a load. Long Island.

The men at the counter laughed at him. "You gonna make $78 for 10 hours' work, boy."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company



-- robert waldrop (rmwj@soonernet.com), January 16, 2001

Answers

Transportation is one of the best indicators of how things are doing.

This does not bode well!

-- fair use act quotation: for educational and reserach purposes (perry@ofuzzy1.com), January 16, 2001.


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