On a recent episode of his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the host did a segment on the trucking industry and truck drivers. He talked about how reality shows about trucking have exploded in popularity over the last several years, making truck driving look like a dangerous but exciting career.
However, all of this aside, truckers are vital to our country’s economy. In fact, in John Oliver’s “Trucks” segment, he notes that without truck drivers to move goods and cargo back and forth, our country would quickly shut down. Today, we’re facing a truck driver shortage – here in North Dakota and across the rest of the United States. Our current supply chain crisis is also affected by this shortage, with goods taking longer than usual to get to and from their destinations.
Oliver reports that the 2019 US Census showed 3.5 million Americans working as truck drivers, including everyone from the truckers who pick up cargo right at a shipping dock to the drivers who deliver a package straight to your porch. He questions the trucking companies’ claim of a shortage, and says that the actual problem is “less a driver shortage and more one of driver retention.”
He goes on to say, “Hundreds of thousands of people become truck drivers every year – but hundreds of thousands also quit.” Some trucking companies actually have a driver turnover rate of 100 and 300 percent. So yes, there is a truck driver shortage – but not because truckers don’t want to drive.
What’s going on in the trucking industry?
Many of us remember the trucking heyday of the 1970s. The trucking industry thrived and truckers enjoyed a place in pop culture. However, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, passed by the Carter Administration, deregulated the trucking industry, allowing trucking companies to set their own prices (and wages). Since then, trucker’s salaries have decreased by as much as 50 percent and nearly 40 percent lack health insurance.
Oliver points out three key issues with the trucking industry currently affecting drivers.
How trucking companies pay their drivers
Truckers are paid by the mile, rather than the hour. This means they’re not on the clock while fueling, loading, unloading, or docked. If their destination is backed up, all the time spent waiting is unpaid. One trucker in Oliver’s video mentions waiting in one cargo dock for 13 hours without pay. Paying drivers by the mile can also incentivize them to speed or drive past their physical limits.
Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires electronic logging systems (ELS) for drivers to ensure they don’t drive past hours-of-service (HOS) regulations, many truckers believe an ELS can actually force them to drive when it’s unsafe to do so. Oliver’s piece features a video of a fatigued trucker who was unable to sleep during his designated hours, and when he got back on the road, he began nodding off behind the wheel. After pulling over and calling his dispatcher to say he felt unsafe to drive, he was handed off to dispatcher after dispatcher, all of whom told him to get back on the road.
Relationship between truck drivers and truck companies
Many trucking companies don’t classify their driver as employees; instead misidentifying them as independent contractors. We say “misidentify” because when a company controls one’s job duties nearly exclusively, a worker should receive the same benefits and rights as an employee. However, by classifying truck drivers as independent contractors, companies avoid almost all the liability and costs of having an employee.
One trucking family mentioned pulling in $150,000 annually as independent truckers. Then, they saw that $150,000 shrink to just $20,000 when allowing for fuel, maintenance, and engine repair. An independent trucker also takes on liability for any accident, as their company certainly won’t stand behind them. Studies say up to two-thirds of truck drivers are misclassified.
Lease/purchase agreements are among the most insidious tactics trucking companies take with prospective drivers. The aim of these agreements is leasing your vehicle from the company you work for, with goal of earning enough money to eventually own it. Many trucking companies use lease/purchase agreements as a selling point to attract drivers; however, these types of schemes almost never succeed.
One company owner stated in court documents shown on “Last Week Tonight” that only five to 10 percent of truck drivers ever even managed to take ownership of their trucks. Further, Oliver notes that these types of agreements lock a driver in with a company, which will bill them for maintenance, repair, storage, and outrageous charges (one driver was billed for toilet paper) – and take it straight out of their paychecks. If a driver wants to leave the company, the company can take back their truck.
Many drivers are currently taking legal action against certain companies for these types of practices. And, the Departments of Transportation and Labor are looking into predatory truck leasing practices, as well as unfair driver pay and unpaid waiting times. When the trucking industry becomes safer for truck drivers, it becomes safer for everyone.
In the meantime, if you or a loved one are injured in a truck accident, the Minot attorneys at Larson Law Firm, P.C. want to help. There may be several parties responsible for your injuries, and we can help determine the best path forward to compensation for your losses. To schedule a consultation, call 701-484-HURT or complete our contact form today. We maintain offices in Minot, Fargo, and Bismarck.
Mark Larson is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist and Certified Civil Pre-Trial Specialist focusing on personal injury, motor vehicle, wrongful death, and oil field claims. Since 1979, Larson Law Firm has served the injured throughout North Dakota. Read more about Mark V. Larson