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    The Hourly Mile

By John Aalborg

Like many drivers, I used to fantasize that hourly pay would whisk away all my troubles. But I’ve since learned that if hourly pay for OTR drivers were imported into the U.S. today, transportation and the economy would flop into the chop basket before you could say Marie Antoinette. Despite the pros and cons often cited for the American pay-by-mile system versus the European pay-by-hour system, the reasons for the two different practices are more cultural than anything else. And the idea of switching policies doesn’t amount to much more than an entertaining notion from both sides of the ocean. Besides, our vigor, elasticity, and pride in production would not translate well into hourly pay. The statement, “I got in 500 miles for three days straight,” would draw a blank in Liechtenstein.

But don’t take my word for it. Imagine you are a company driver and you wake up after your eight hours to find that the rules have changed. You are being paid by the hour. Oh goody, by the hour! The trouble is, you’re being paid in ’s, your logbook is in English but a French highway officer is pointing at the funny-looking machine you didn’t know you had near your dashboard—says Tachograph—and your load is going to Budapest. In a cardboard box on the passenger seat is a trove of well-worn manuals for all the countries and borders you expect to be crossing (three today before your HOS runs out) and how the speed limits are enforced in each. At no time on your run will you be getting even close to 55 mph. Then there are the smaller pamphlets, one of which the French officer is waving under your nose. He translates the title for you. “The Digital Tachograph and Analog Record Keeping.” Somewhere in there it says you should have, ready for immediate inspection, copies of your logs for the past 22 days.

Yup, that Tacho thing keeps track of everything about your trips, and he wants the printouts. Wait a minute. How much are you getting paid per hour? Is it time to wake up from this weird dream?

Bottom line is, British and Europeans truckers are plagued with just as many mandates and headaches as the rest of us. They’ve required the use of onboard recording devices for years, and the speed limits are often lower there. By accepting all the rules that lengthen the trip times, an hourly wage is almost necessary. Border crossings can add hours onto trip times, and European Union (EU) drivers
often pass through several countries in a single day. By comparison, their pay system may seem breezy and relaxed, yet all you hear from over there is that the hourly wage is too low.

As a result, many carriers started hiring drivers from non-Union countries (Eastern Europe or Third World) who were willing to drive for less than half of what the company pays EU-drivers. Laws on this issue were enforced differently from country to country until three years ago when the EU started requiring all drivers to carry a “driver-certificate.” Now all drivers of EU-registered trucks must be able to produce this certificate on request, verifying their status as a citizen of the EU. The regulations read, “The Driver-Certificate warrants that the driver behind the wheel of a truck is in the employment of the carrier holding the operator’s license for that particular truck, and that the driver involved is compensated within the guidelines of the collective bargaining agreement valid for his employer, and that all employer’s contributions are being paid.” But whether they do a better job enforcing undocumented labor there than we do here is beyond me.

So, if hourly pay is so much better than pay-by-mile, then why the complaints and illegal workers? If the U.S. were to adopt that system, it would probably be a similar scenario. To stay in business, long distance carriers in any country must be competitive. That means keeping their rates low. And that means keeping their costs low, probably making the hourly wage pretty unimpressive to most drivers.

With hourly pay, there is also a double-edged sword regarding the chance to earn more money. Recruiters here often promise more miles, while recruiters across the Atlantic promise more hours. The rub is, over there, 48 hours of driving is the limit. Including on-duty/not driving time, they can’t average more than 48 hours per week. However, EU drivers can sometimes expect subsidiary, tax-free compensation for “upkeep of bedding in the cab” or “two or more showers per day (especially in Mediterranean areas in summer)” or “bottled water.” There’s more. “Drivers away from home overnight often incur additional expenses of a personal nature, such as newspapers, laundry, and calls home.” I don’t know, maybe they should keep that subsidiary compensation. I am picturing myself stuck overnight in Albania, my cell can’t find a signal, and the newspapers are printed in Shqip (I am not making this up). Oh, and check out this line from UK/EU regulations: “Payments to wage-earning drivers, even in the form of bonuses or wage supplements, related to distances traveled and/or the amount of goods carried are prohibited.” How this may affect ambition and driver motivation is not hard to imagine.

Still don’t believe that hourly pay isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? I experienced the greener grass first hand. I once drove OTR for three years while being paid by the hour to drive all of the southeastern states, flatbed and lowboy, often with oversize loads. I worked on contract, drove a company truck, paid my own taxes, kept records for deductions, and endured many of the other hassles owner-operators have to, but without the benefits. The company figured how many hours I worked by reading my logs, and tallied driving and on-duty hours against my hourly wage to figure my pay. I was honor-bound not to fudge. Driving time was easy to figure from my log, but there were times when on-duty/off-duty got complicated.

For years, I faked a state of bliss whenever I was asked how I got paid, but always found myself at odds with the system. The line between work and off-time was constantly blurred. Arriving at a drop just before noon one day with an oversized load that would require a crew and a crane, the men decided to unload me and postpone their lunch. An hour later, as things bogged down, they decided to take me along with them to a local barbeque place, which turned out to be thirty-five miles away. Two hours later, I was back on the job, but on-duty time (per my wage agreement) was how long it took for me to get back on the road or into the sleeper. Then there was motel parking. Every third night out, I could score a motel and bill it to the company. But as every driver knows, you can get twisted up with “Truck Parking” signs, get on the wrong entrance to a place you can’t turn around in, and when you finally do manage to birth your truck, you’ve blown over an hour of driving time. If it’s your own fault, how do you log that? Does looking out of the motel window to make sure your load isn’t being stolen count as “on duty/not driving?” The HOS rule states that “Except for time spent resting in a sleeper berth, a continuous line shall be drawn between the appropriate time markers to record the period(s) of time when the driver is not on duty, is not required to be in readiness to work, or is not under any responsibility for performing work.” Included in this rule makes watching the load “on duty.”

Here’s another example: with an oversized load, the handlers and crane operator are required to secure the load and remove parts on top higher than a clearance of 13 feet, six inches. In this instance, I’d tell them, “If you need anything, I’ll be taking a break at the park across the street, feeding the ducks.” Estimated time is three hours. In the middle of Walden Pond time, however, I’m called back to unlock a toolbox for some chain bolts. Does the carrier now owe me three hours of on-duty wage? If yes, can I finish the ice cream cone I just bought at the park? Do I charge the carrier for the time taken while inside the work area, but not for crossing the street? Compare this situation to a citizen on the way to a regular job. Does he or she charge the employer for the time it takes for the daily commute? The tolls and fuel?

There are, of course, some perks. During the brief time that I was paid by the hour, I do recall making some un-earned money with a clear conscience. On two similar trips, I was hauling three large transformers to the U.S. Government Savannah River Plant, a super-funded cleanup site that extends into a huge area of South Carolina. When you drop a load there, you’re better off spending the night before in a motel outside the gates, especially if the product looks like three fat missiles ready to launch. I was told my load was destined for two new office buildings, each three stories, for the hundreds of personnel who would be managing the nuclear waste cleanup. The security there is tight. When I entered the facility, a guard wearing red gloves went through everything in my tractor. This took over an hour, and included opening my thermos and sniffing the coffee. He did put everything back more or less where he found it, bless his heart. Next, he crawled underneath the tractor and trailer and thumped the tires. I offered to tell him which wheel was filled with straw, but he did not laugh. He then emptied out the external toolboxes, looking for guns. When he was finished and waved me on, I asked why he didn’t look inside the load, which consisted of three transformers eight feet tall with man-sized covers bolted down at the top. “Elvis could be in one of those,” I said. That, as you can imagine, was a mistake. I was there all day, and every hour was “on-duty” and paid for, plus two nights at the motel. When I returned to the Florida terminal, I asked my boss if he minded all the on-duty hours. He grinned and said, “The U. S. government always pays the company top dollar.” It was a good time, but not exactly a regular occurrence.

As we all know, driving is not usually this entertaining and the money is hard earned. So the question posed on us all, both hourly and by-the-mile drivers, is why do it then? We all gripe about the pay wage, but stay on the road just the same. The reasons vary from driver to driver, but the answers have an inescapable similarity. Ask a circus performer why he works for peanuts and you get the same vague answers, but with the same note of enthusiasm. It’s the freedom. It’s the daily newness of it all. It’s that thing called being on the road. In the U.S., one way to stay on the road and make a good hourly wage is to get a job on a county road maintenance crew. But I imagine the view from leaning on that shovel gets old fast. Local truck drivers tend to be paid by the hour, with extra pay for working overtime, but they do the same job every day, have to clock in and out, and that cannot be considered “on the road.” Joining the circus is a way to stay on the road, but circus employees are exempt from minimum wage laws.

In the U.S., being paid by the hour would not change this love-hate relationship we have with our industry, or likely even make our wallets any fatter. It seems unlikely that either America or the UK/EU would be better off swapping a working system for a foreign system. Each is locked into its own so tightly, and a switch would require so many adjustments, that the resulting economic funerals could sink us all. Drivers in the states are not likely to ever see our system converted. And even if we American drivers were somehow allowed to be paid by the mile in Europe, a fantasy exemption created just for amusement’s sake, we would find that we could not get the miles to equal the time or pay, even if we broke all the rules, beat that slot-machine called “Tacho,” and learned how to go airborne over border crossings. So besides wishing for what we don’t have, what drivers everywhere will have to settle for instead is that sweet-sounding but hard-to-explain phrase, “I’m on the road again.”