JESSICA WEHRMAN CQ-Roll Call
Truck driver Tilden Curl says there’s an old adage in the trucking industry: If the wheels aren’t turning, you’re not making money.
There is some truth in this statement. Much of a trucker’s day is spent waiting to drop off and deliver goods, and many are paid in miles driven rather than hours worked. As a result, drivers who spend four or five hours waiting to deliver or pick up goods often don’t get paid for those hours.
“You end up with truckers putting in 70 to 80 hours, and a lot of it is just sitting there and they’re not getting paid for most of that time,” said Curl, a trucking veteran from 30 years. who sits on the board of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “If you’re not getting paid for all your time, then it’s not an attractive job.”
All of this is perfectly legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half workers for more than 40 hours worked, created an exemption for truck drivers.
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But a bipartisan bill in the House seeks to eliminate that exemption. The bill, introduced by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Michigan, would repeal the motor carrier overtime exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing truckers to be compensated for all hours worked.
Levin and Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-New Jersey, the lead Republican co-sponsor, argue eliminating the exemption will help reduce the high turnover rates that have plagued the trucking industry.
The American Trucking Associations has argued for years that the country faces a shortage of some 80,000 truckers. Groups like the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which supports the legislation, say the real problem is that no one wants to stay on the job for long. The ATA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the bill.
Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the bill could help drivers working in particularly exploitative sectors of the trucking industry earn minimum wage — something they don’t necessarily earn. now.
The 1980 decision to deregulate interstate trucking, he said, coupled with the collapse of Teamster representation of most truckers, led to lower wages. And some trucking companies classify drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying their benefits. The result: Some trucking companies are experiencing driver turnover of 200-300% per year – and a shortage of truck drivers that is a leading cause of supply chain issues in the United States.
“When we deregulated the market, we created a jungle where workers will be paid as little as possible to employers,” Viscelli said. “When you create a jungle, you get predators.”
David Correll, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics, said the bill is not a panacea; As long as the pay-per-mile model exists, there will be ways to pay workers less.
The pay-per-mile arrangement is a “massive wrinkle (that) really needs to be ironed out,” he said.
Still, he said, the House bill is “a step in the right direction.”
The bill has no equivalent in the Senate and would face an uphill battle. Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University who supports lifting the exemption, warns companies will likely fight the idea of paying overtime.
“Consumers will consume an endless supply of free goods,” he said, saying companies have treated much of drivers’ time as free for years.
Levin’s bill reflects a February 2022 recommendation made in the Department of Transport’s Supply Chain Assessment, a document that examined the reasons for a supply chain lockdown that contributed to the rise in price.
For Curl, a self-employed truck driver based in Olympia, Wash., the benefits of the bill would be indirect — he is salaried. But he said it would ultimately increase freight rates and make driving a career more competitive. “We will all benefit from this in the trucking business,” he said. “We just want the drivers to be paid for their work, period.”
He’s been with the company long enough to see how the job has evolved. It was once a middle-class income, but today, he said, adjusted for inflation, drivers earn less than half what they earned in the 1980s.
“Nowadays it’s debatable whether it’s a middle-class job or not,” Curl said.