Truck driver Tilden Curl says there’s an old adage in the trucking industry: If the wheels aren’t turning, you aren’t earning.
There is truth to that statement. Much of a trucker’s day is spent waiting to drop off and deliver goods, and many are paid by miles driven rather than hours worked. As a result, drivers who spend four or five hours waiting to deliver or pick up cargo are often not paid for those hours.
“You wind up with truck drivers putting in 70 to 80 hours, and a lot of it is tied up with just sitting there and they don’t get paid for the bulk of that time,” said Curl, a 30-year trucking veteran who serves on the board of directors of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “If you don’t get paid for all of your time, then it’s not an attractive job.”
All of this is perfectly legal. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay workers time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours worked, carved out an exemption for truck drivers.
But a bipartisan bill in the House aims to eliminate that exemption. The bill, introduced by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., would repeal the motor carrier overtime exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing truck drivers to be compensated for all the hours they work.
Levin and Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., the lead Republican co-sponsor, argue that 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 nation faces a trucker shortage of some 80,000 truckers. Groups like the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which supports the legislation, say the real problem is no one wants to stay in 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 receive a minimum wage — something they’re not necessarily earning now.
The 1980 decision to deregulate interstate trucking, he said, coupled with the collapse of Teamster representation of most truckers, led to declining wages. And some trucking companies classify drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying for their benefits. The result: Some trucking firms are seeing driver turnover of 200 to 300 percent per year — and a shortage of truck drivers that's a key cause of U.S. supply chain woes.
“When we deregulated the market, we created a jungle where workers are going to be paid the least amount employers can get away with,” Viscelli said. “When you create a jungle, you get predators.”
David Correll, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics, said the bill isn’t a panacea; as long as the pay-per-mile model exists, there will be ways to pay workers less.
The pay-by-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 counterpart in the Senate and would face an uphill battle. Michael Belzer, a professor of economics at Wayne State University who supports lifting the exemption, cautions that companies will likely fight the idea of paying overtime.
“Consumers will consume an infinite amount of free goods,” he said, arguing that companies have treated much of drivers’ time as free for years.
The Levin bill mirrors a February 2022 recommendation made in the Department of Transportation’s Supply Chain Assessment, a document that examined the reasons for a supply chain logjam that has contributed to rising prices.
For Curl, an independent truck driver based in Olympia, Wash., the benefits of the bill would be indirect — he’s on salary. But he said it would ultimately increase freight rates and make driving a more competitive career. “We will all benefit in the trucking business from this,” he said. “We’re just out to get drivers paid for their work, period.”
He’s been in the business long enough to see how the job has evolved. It used to be a middle-class income, but today, he said, adjusted for inflation, drivers make less than half of what they made in the 1980s.
“Nowadays, it’s debatable as to whether it’s a middle-class job or not,” Curl said.