March 17, 2014 3:30 AM, EDT

Fleets Say HOS Hurts Driver Pay, Recruiting

By Neil Abt, and Seth Clevenger, Staff Reporters

This story appears in the March 17 print edition of Transport Topics.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fleet executives said last year’s changes to the hours-of-service rule continue to cut into drivers’ productivity and take-home pay, further complicating their efforts to recruit and retain drivers.

But despite these challenges, they said their companies are moving forward with new equipment purchases as the economy shows signs of improvement.

Dave Manning, president of TCW Inc., said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s requirement to take an uncompensated 30-minute break has reduced drivers’ pay by as much as 5%.

“And I haven’t talked to a driver that thinks that makes them safer,” he said here March 10 during a panel discussion at Heavy Duty Dialogue.

The panel discussion was moderated by Jeff Mason, executive vice president of communications and public affairs for Transport Topics Publishing Group, and Tim Kraus, president of the Heavy Duty

Manufacturers Association. The organizations sponsored the all-day HDD event.

TCW is a shorthaul carrier based in Nashville. The nature of the work requires drivers to take many short breaks, but those are not long enough to qualify under the HOS rules, Manning said.

He also said his company’s night shift loses the ability to work on Saturday because of the overnight rest times required as part of the restart provision. That is resulting in fewer available working hours for those drivers than before the rules took effect last summer.

Aaron Tennant, president of Tennant Truck Lines Inc., said it has been a challenge to quantify the effect of the HOS rules in numerical terms, but he cited frustration from the company’s driver base.

“We’re seeing their quality of life diminish because they can’t take their restart every weekend like they used to,” he said. “They’re getting stuck 400 or 500 miles from home as opposed to spending quality of time with their family on the weekends.”

Those strains increase the likelihood that drivers will be “irritated on the road, and that doesn’t do anyone any good,” Tennant said.

Kirk Altrichter, vice president of maintenance for Crete Carrier Corp., said the fleet is trying to find ways to compensate for the HOS changes, such as having drivers perform some basic maintenance on the vehicle during the fueling process to give them more time on the road.

The carrier also has focused on getting drivers in and out of the maintenance shop more quickly, he said.

Altrichter is immediate past chairman of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council.

His company last week said it will raise pay by 2 cents per mile for all of its national over-the-road drivers and owner-operators. After the raise, starting pay will be between 42 cents and 48 cents at its operating units.

Tennant said he’s been talking about the driver shortage for almost 20 years, “but it’s honestly the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

The problem is not just the quantity of drivers but the quality, he said.

Tennant said his lead recruiter recently considered 300 potential drivers in one week, either by speaking with them or by reviewing an application. “She wasn’t able to hire any of them because they didn’t meet our standards.”

Altrichter said a fleet’s equipment also plays a role in recruiting.

Drivers have come to expect fleets to provide certain amenities on the truck, such as microwaves and refrigerators, he said.

“If you don’t have it, they’re going somewhere else,” he said.

Lee Long, director of fleet services at less-than-truckload carrier Southeastern Freight Lines Inc., said his company’s driver turnover is a “very low” 6% annually.

He said a truckload carrier running coast-to-coast faces “a different challenge,” though.

In contrast, Southeastern Freight Lines’ drivers run regional, hub-to-hub routes and are home every night.

When asked about the company’s equipment-buying plans, Long said they are “buying trucks and trailers and dollies and forklifts and everything else.”

Likewise, Manning said TCW has ramped up its replacement purchases coming out of the recession.

“We let our trucks get older during the downturn in the economy. If we were going to have a truck parked, we wanted it to be a truck that’s paid for, not one we were still paying on,” he said, “but as the economy picked back up, we found out that maintenance costs ate us alive.”

In fact, TCW plans to replace about half of its fleet this year “because we’re behind and need to catch up,” Manning said.

The company is trading equipment at about 450,000 miles or 42 months, he added.

Tennant said his Colona, Ill.-based company is also replacing its trucks on a 3½-year cycle.

“We’ve continued to buy new trucks,” he said. “We believe it’s more efficient, more effective for us to keep the equipment under warranty and trade it out.”

Meanwhile, the growing complexity of modern trucks and a shortage of technicians have combined to hurt fleet utilization over the past four to six years, Altrichter said.

“The dealerships are backlogged, and we’re sitting for days on end to get in,” he said.

Southeastern Freight Lines, based in Lexington, S.C., and Crete Carrier Corp., headquartered in Lincoln, Neb., rank No. 27 and No. 28, respectively, on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.