Taking aim at detention time

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There have been various attempts in the past to curb detention and to hold customers accountable but we felt more needed to be done.” –Tim Norlin, director of recruiting, Marten Transport

Ah, detention time: two of the ugliest words in trucking’s lexicon, and they’ve dogged this industry for decades. For drivers, in particular, detention time remains particularly frustrating, hurting their wallet (as most don’t get paid for sitting at a shipper’s dock waiting to load or unload) while shredding their schedule to pieces, especially in terms of staying in compliance with hours of service (HOS) rules.

The debate over what to do about detention time is reaching a fever pitch of sorts of late, particularly as members of Congress propose to drive a legislative stake through the heart of this nasty issue once and for all. [You can click here to read more about the battle being waged over that particular strategy.]

Indeed, polls conducted by Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) indicate that drivers spend as many as 40 hours per week waiting to be loaded or unloaded.

Additionally, a survey conducted with 300 drivers this January by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) found that 59% experienced detention time, with about 65% of them reported lost revenue as a result of detention time from either missing an opportunity to secure another load or paying late fees to the shipper.

OOIDA added that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has estimated that the cost of detention time to the trucking industry is more than $3 billion per year and the cost to the public is more than $6.5 billion per year – and FMCSA is also proposing to conduct a more detailed study of detention time in 2012.

“Shippers and receivers have for too long gotten away with wasting truckers’ time without any accountability for their role in the ultimate effect it has on highway safety,” Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s executive VP, told me back in May this year.

“But this is also an industry that can’t seem to correct itself on this issue, as it remains totally willing to give away the driver’s time,” he stressed. “This isn’t a new issue, either – it’s been dogging this industry for 30 years and there doesn’t seem to be a market-based solution to it.”

Yet, for a brief moment (relatively speaking) the industry seemed poised to eliminate detention time once and for all back in 2004, when HOS rules underwent their first revision in over 70 years. My colleague and writing compatriot Larry Kahaner tellingly told a tale of carriers finally getting the upper hand against shippers on this insidious issue, slapping hourly fines of $60 or more on customers that unnecessarily waylaid their tractor-trailers and drivers at the dock.

Alas, however, the Great Recession in many ways put an end to that effort, as carriers of all stripes (not to mention owner-operators) found themselves struggling just to survive – willing to put up with dock delays as long as that meant getting paid to haul freight.

Yet the consequences of dock delays are far reaching – something David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA), pointed out in an excellent column he wrote about this issue last year.

“Cost can also be an issue when dealing with wait times. Obviously, with wheels rolling, goods can move to their destination in a scheduled and on-time fashion,” he explained. “When a driver is forced to wait to pick up or drop off a load, however, he or she is delayed in moving onto the next haul and can even ‘violate’ the terms of a contract by delivering late. In essence, delays cost everyone in terms of both time and money.”

[As an aside, a lot of effort is being directed at reducing “freight delays” broadly across North America, and we’re not just talking about those originating on the warehouse dock, either. Take for example a joint U.S.-Canadian effort to smooth out freight and traffic flows at the four Cascade Gateway border crossings between British Columbia and Washington State, begun at the end of last year.]

But now many carriers are stepping up to the plate once again to take a stab at dealing with the detention time issue on their own – one of them being Mondovi, WI-based refrigerated carrier Marten Transport.

Back in 2003 it started charging customers a detention fee if trailers were not loaded or unloaded in a set period of time. But now they’re upping the ante.

Effective July 1 this year, Marten drivers who arrive on time and are delayed by a shipper or receiver for more than two hours beyond the scheduled appointment time will automatically receive detention pay: $12 per hour for company drivers, $20 per hour for independent contractors for every hour detained beyond a two hour “grace period,” up to 11 hours.

“This eliminates waiting to see if the customer will pay for the detention before you are paid,” noted Tim Norlin, director of recruiting for Marten, in a press release the company put out late last week. “You will receive the detention pay automatically no later than the time you are paid for that trip.”

He added that with new hours of service regulations, the FMCSA’s new Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program, and electronic logs, there is a lot of pressure on driver productivity.

“We understand that every minute the wheels are not rolling affects earnings for our drivers and our company,” he said. “We also understand that certain customer locations have a history of long detention times that our drivers would prefer to avoid. We are flagging those customers for follow-up by our sales team to correct the detention issues there.”

Norlin noted that until such delays at “flagged” customer locations are resolved, company drivers that are dispatched to flagged locations will earn $20 per hour and independent contractors will earn $30 per hour for detention. “Drivers will be notified at time of dispatch if their pickup or delivery location has been flagged for long detention times,” he added

Norlin also said that “detention prone” customers are also going to see their charges calculated in quarter hour increments.

“For example, if you arrive on time for an 8 a.m. delivery and the receiver keeps you in the dock until 11:45 a.m., you will receive 1.75 hours of detention pay,” he said, as a result of the total 3.75 hour delay minus the two hour grace period.

Yet Norlin – like many drivers, I would suspect – hopes to eventually eliminate detention time issues with shippers. Yet he remains very much a realist as well. “Our automatic detention pay is now in place to take care of drivers until then,” he explained.

And frankly, it’s up to the shippers to really solve this problem, anyways.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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