Ferro’s fickle friends

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As head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) – a post she vacates Aug. 22 – Anne Ferro called for reforms in driver pay to ensure that they were paid for detention or other on-duty, not driving work.

Ferro sometimes spoke of the American truck driver in almost glowing terms, suggesting that they generally were dedicated, underpaid, hard-working professionals victimized by a supply chain that often forced them to act in ways counter to public safety and their own health and welfare. Ferro embraced regulations that are moving toward finalization to thwart efforts by carriers, shippers, brokers and others to coerce drivers into violating safety regulations.

A typical Ferro comment on drivers came in a May interview with Fleet Owner. She said that the No. 1 action that would improve truck safety would be to improve driver pay and working conditions. “Treat them as professionals every step of the way – from the time they get on the job to the time they are on the loading dock to the time they get their next dispatch to the time they get their next paycheck,” Ferro said. “Give them a reasonable work life, a reasonable work schedule and a reasonable pay for the very difficult job they do.”

For this uncharacteristically strong advocacy on behalf of truck drivers, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. rewarded Ferro in June by calling for her resignation.

OK, that’s a one-sided account of OOIDA’s action. For starters, OOIDA doesn’t really represent company drivers but rather independent and leased owner-operators – businesses that face some of the same challenges at a micro level that a Schneider National or Swift Transportation do. They all manage operating costs to a varying degree, and a large number of them work directly for and with shippers, brokers and receivers.

So advocacy for truck drivers in general does not necessarily equal advocating for OOIDA members. But OOIDA had been making the same arguments about detention and supply chain pressures for years with barely any acknowledgement by FMCSA or the Dept. of Transportation (DOT). And the group praised DOT and FMCSA in late April for their proposal to mandate detention pay.

More to the point, OOIDA had some justified concerns with Ferro. For example, the last straw for the group was Ferro’s June 3 blog post in which she argued against suspending last year’s changes to the hours-of-service (HOS) restart provisions by relaying accounts from victims’ families and others of some horrendous truck crashes. It wasn’t the data-driven approach that Ferro herself has touted so forcefully regarding HOS changes, and it certainly was not her finest hour. Not by a long shot.

In a letter to DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, Jim Johnston, OOIDA’s president, said that Ferro’s post had “spelled out clearly that FMCSA, and the Administrator herself, view truckers not as committed professionals but as accidents waiting to happen, and that the only way to prevent these accidents is through more rules, more enforcement and the continued treatment of trucker.”

Huh?

Certainly FMCSA administrators before Ferro didn’t demonize truckers, but none had so clearly taken drivers’ side. That probably has much more to do with politics than Ferro herself. She was the first confirmed administrator under a Democratic president – a president who has been a steadfast and strong supporter of labor vis-à-vis employers. It’s inconceivable, for example, that Ferro’s FMCSA predecessors – all of whom served under President George W. Bush – would have championed a federal law requiring detention pay for drivers.

Again, Ferro’s defensiveness over the HOS restart changes led her to lower the level of debate, not elevate it. But it wasn’t really a reason to take such a dramatic step of asking Foxx to replace her. No doubt, OOIDA’s call for Ferro’s ouster responded more to member dissatisfaction with FMCSA policies over the past few years rather than Ferro personally.

The July 2013 HOS changes certainly were high on OOIDA’s list of grievances, and Ferro clearly owns that policy, for good or ill. And she owns some of the controversial aspects of the rollout of the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, although many key elements of CSA were in place long before Ferro took office.

But the big kahuna as far as OOIDA members are concerned is FMCSA’s proposal to mandate electronic logging devices. You need to read only a dozen or two owner-operator comments in the ELD docket to understand the anger many truckers harbor over electronic logs.

The proposed ELD mandate may have come under Ferro’s watch, but the push started under John Hill’s tenure. It was Hill’s FMCSA that initially proposed to require electronic logs for “bad actors,” and that was basically the same rule that Ferro finalized and that OOIDA got struck down in court, setting up the current rulemaking.

Moreover, Hill’s decision to rescind the longstanding policy not to use satellite data as supporting documents set in motion the pressure from larger carriers to both adopt electronic logs themselves and push Congress and FMCSA to make them universal.

And don’t forget: Congress mandated ELDs. So much of the criticism of FMCSA on that issue is misplaced.

On balance, OOIDA may never see an FMCSA administrator as friendly to some of its key causes as Anne Ferro. But with its ranks swelling with angry truckers, OOIDA decided to throw that friend overboard. And could it be that OOIDA had some intelligence that Ferro was about to take another job? Certainly, if you know that someone is about to resign it’s quite the public relations coup to call publicly for her resignation.

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What's Down the Road?

Avery Vise comments on how economic, regulatory, technological and supply chain developments affect the trucking industry.

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