Potatoes, Metaphor for Unpaid Work

Albuquerque, New Mexico

The potatoes tumbled from the trailer onto a conveyor belt fitted with small trays. The question on my mind: How much of my time was I donating to this multi-national food maker?

Driving over-the-road has given us a peek behind America’s industrial curtain. To see how and where products that we take for granted, like potato chips, are made, and how much it costs a truck driver in unpaid work.

Potatoes, Metaphor for Unpaid Work

The trailer is backed onto the potato chippers’ platform, the tractor is unhooked and the trailer is raised so that 22 tons of potatoes will roll out in a controlled unload directly onto a conveyor belt, while the driver sits, unpaid.

The trailer is backed onto the potato chippers’ platform, the tractor is unhooked and the trailer is raised so that 22 tons of potatoes will roll out in a controlled unload directly onto a conveyor belt, while the driver sits, unpaid.

Studies by the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) shows that truckers donate 30 to 40 hours of their time a week to functions related to their jobs, things they have to do in order to remain employed, or in business and to keep themselves legal, none of which they are paid for.

In trucking there is so-called unpaid work, which is included in the rate per mile the drivers receive, and there is the real unpaid work caused the shipper, receiver, agent or customs broker, created by passing their costs onto the trucker by design or sloppiness, which saves them money.

Included in the rate-per-mile-for-unpaid-work is the pre-trip inspection, required by law, fueling, weather and traffic delays. Not included, and the most egregious abuse of a driver’s time, is time spent sitting on a dock waiting for the shipper or receiver to load and unload, or time waiting because the agent didn’t provide the correct pick up number, or waiting at the border because incorrect customs information was provided.

All this time is a donation to powerful industries, shippers, receivers, carriers and brokers.

This unpaid work affects a driver’s earnings and it affects safety. A reality that is being recognized in other jurisdictions, most recently Australia. In the US, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) does not have the power to truly regulate the industry, because it only regulates drivers and carriers, not the shippers and receivers, and its regulation of brokers is lax.  Political decision-makers, as well, are ignoring the issue.

Truckers are paid by the mile and governed by the clock — if the wheels ain’t turning, we ain’t earning — and they are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

While drivers are detained, their work clock is running down. Truckers have 14 hours a day to work, within that time there is 11 hours to drive. These 11 hours are the only opportunity in a day for drivers to earn money. The maximum work week is 70 hours.

Waiting on the dock, taking care of faxes and emails, technically should be logged as working time, called On Duty Not Driving, which most drivers “log in their favor” to protect their earning hours, their hours to drive each day and each week.

We waited about two hours to be loaded at the potato farm, in that time the warehouse employees had lunch. Finally we were told to back up to a giant arm, which we discovered was a conveyor belt, which firing-range style, loaded 43,000 pounds of potatoes onto the trailer floor in just a few minutes, stacked about four feet high when it stopped. Given the loading, the unfamiliar might think the unloading process would be just as quick.

Nine hundred miles away at the chipper, each appointment was two hours, which should have been a tip off. We backed the trailer onto a ramp with a giant arm, unhooked and drove the bobtail away. The trailer was secured to the arm and slowly raised to a 45 degree angle. It should take, maybe, two minutes for 22 tons of potatoes to roll out.

Potatoes, Metaphor for Unpaid Work

The potatoes descent from the trailer is controlled by the conveyor belt, which moves the potatoes directly from the trailer into the chipping plant.

No, it takes about one-and-a-half hours because the potatoes’ rate of departure from the trailer is managed by the conveyor belt, which is equipped with trays, about the size of a sheet of paper, which are filled as the trays move along the conveyor belt. The chipper is fed as the trailer is unloaded.

“The shipper doesn’t pay detention,” MacGyver deadpanned when he saw the contraption.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We’re not paid to sit here for two hours while they unload,” he said. “They wouldn’t tie up the trailer if they had to pay us detention pay. If we were paid detention pay, they’d dump those potatoes in a bin, let us go, and slowly take the potatoes out of a bin onto the same conveyor belt at the pace they need.”

The receiving technician was efficient, when the truck in front of us was drained the driver quickly hooked up and moved so we could set up. When we were finished, we were given our paperwork and sent on our way. In this case, the detention time was minimal, but still I lost two hours of driving time that day, two hours to make money. We have sat for many more hours on docks.

Carriers give free detention time to shippers and receivers, taking money out of a driver’s pockets. Schneider paid minimal detention to drivers, but there was something. We sat on a dock at a ToysRUs for ten hours and got about $30 to the truck. We read in their training contract that the CARRIER can be paid about $200 an hour for detention, we got $3 an hour. At FedEx Custom Critical and Landstar, four hours of free detention is typical, at Landstar on two loads we received $50 an hour for detention after the four hours. Often at loading and unloading nothing happens until just minutes before that free time is up. Shippers and receivers know they have free time and they use it.

Some drivers say that drivers can negotiate detention time. It’s not that easy. Negotiation is fruitful if you have something someone wants, in dry van freight, pulling basic commodities, there is another truck, another trucking company that can make up the lost time on volume, and they will do it cheaper.

The industry depends on free detention, saving, for instance, on loading dock employees. We delivered beer to a distribution center in El Paso in our first year. Receiving hours were from 7 AM to 2 PM. We arrived at nine o’clock and were eleventh in line to be unloaded. One forklift was operating, the street was filled with No Parking signs. Drivers were pacing up and down between the trucks. Finally a second forklift driver was added for about two hours and cleared most of the trucks by 2 PM, including us. The receiver saved money by being understaffed, by having less equipment than was needed and by usiing a facility that was too small to accommodate the trucks it ordered. We lost time and money, five hours that we could have been dispatched for another load. Because we’re a team, we had someone ready to drive, a solo driver would have lost virtually the entire day.

Now, thanks to the Great Financial Crisis, the situation has worsened, shippers and receivers are saving money, and costing me money, by churning temporary workers through the loading docks, the professional shipping and receiving personnel on the docks that we saw four years ago are vanishing.

Unpaid detention, being held longer than anticipated, affects safety. When driving hours are limited — drivers need to pay for their trucks and feed their families — they must compensate. They can drive faster, risking a crash. They can drive over their legal hours, risking an Hours of Service violation. At the very least, they drive under duress.

In Australia, the government has decided that shippers are part of the safety mix and will, through legislation, regulate shippers. In Europe, drivers are paid hourly for some functions.

Despite years of lobbying by OOIDA, and again at the Mid-American Truck Show last month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Director Anne Ferro continued to say that she doesn’t have the power to regulate shippers and receivers, instead the focus continues on the least powerful in the equation, the drivers, further squeezing the hours a driver can drive.

If safety is the goal, not only should shippers and receivers be in the mix, but also local and state governments to ensure that parking is available for the mandated rest periods and at shippers and receivers in relation to the trucks they order.

Our trailer was emptied in an hour-and-fifteen-minutes. The receiving technician, a nice man, a year younger than me with eight children, seven boys, one girl and two grandchildren — he expressed deep regret when I told him I have no children — has worked at the plant for 30 years. He climbed into the trailer, swept out the last few potatoes and lowered our trailer to the ground.

We hooked up and departed with just enough time to drive around Houston, Texas to make our money load, Hazardous Materials chemicals to Canada.

7 thoughts on “Potatoes, Metaphor for Unpaid Work

  1. I never realized that the down time was so bad. I know a guy that used to hall beer out of the Bud plant in NH and he always cried about the long wait to get unloaded every time he went there. I think the way they unload potatoes takes the cake!!!


  2. From a "technical" view, hoisting the trailer up to a 45 degree angle is very weird, watching it go up. We've been driving four years now, most of our detention time is in the two to four hour range, but that time adds up over the year.


  3. Just saw this in Langley, off the Golden Ears bridge. Very weird, to see the tractor and a double length trailer up at a 45 degree angle. They were unloading what looked like bark mulch, sawdust, maybe a pulp and paper mill along the Fraser.


  4. Phil, we've heard stories about a recycling plant in Georgia that not only lifts the trailer up to "unload" but it leaves the tractor attached. Most drivers are horrified watching their tractor with all their stuff — not nailed down — flying around the cab.


  5. SECTION 1. DETENTION OF OPERATORS OF COMMERCIAL MOTOR VEHICLES BY SHIPPERS AND RECEIVERS. (a) Study- The Secretary of Transportation shall conduct a study on the detention of operators of commercial motor vehicles by shippers and receivers before the loading and unloading of such vehicles. (b) Elements of Study- In conducting the study, the Secretary shall assess– (1) the average length of time that operators of commercial motor vehicles are detained before the loading and unloading of such vehicles; (2) how such detentions impact such operators under various compensation structures in the motor carrier industry; (3) the extent to which such detentions result in violations of the Secretary's regulations on maximum hours of service prescribed under section 31502 of title 49, United States Code; and (4) the feasibility of tracking the causes of violations of such regulations. (c) Report- Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report on the results of the study.112th CONGRESS 1st Session H. R. 756


  6. The only reason that we do 'unpaid' work is because we put up with it. We need to stop complaining about it and simply 'fire' those shippers / receivers that consistently waste our time without compensation.


  7. And, I think we need to start asking, when we're inquiring about a load: what's your policy on detention pay? so shippers/receivers know that's part of our decision of whether we take the load or not.


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