From Rachel Premack at Business Insider
- There are 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers on the road. Their median income is $43,680.
- They play a crucial role in the American economy. Some 71% of freight by weight is moved by truck. If they all stopped working, grocery stores would run out of food in three days.
- But some of the people who count themselves among the legions of truckers in America say they feel misunderstood.
- Dozens of truckers have shared with Business Insider what it’s really like to be a truck driver.
- “To be able to be a truck driver used to be quite a good blue-collar, middle-class job, but over the past 40 years it has kind of dwindled away,” Gordon Klemp, a principal at the National Transportation Institute, previously told Business Insider.
Their jobs are highly dependent on how the rest of the economy is doing.
Most companies can roughly control how their businesses perform, with better advertising, products, and the like.
But beyond providing better service, truckers are dependent on whether people just need stuff.
That became clear in 2019. A year before, the trucking industry was riding high, with rates and pay skyrocketing, but those crashed as manufacturing and retail indicators slowed.
Transport research groups reported that the volume of trucks purchased in July fell to its lowest level in nearly 10 years. Loads in the spot market tumbled by 37% this July from July 2018. And the Cass Freight Index says year-over-year trucking volumes have slipped for eight consecutive months.
Because of that, some truck drivers say the industry is in a “bloodbath.” About 2,500 have lost their jobs as companies large and small file for bankruptcy protection and other major companies scale back their service.
A trucker’s lifestyle is inherently unhealthy.
Long-haul truck drivers face “a constellation of chronic disease risk factors,” researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in 2014.
Truck stops, the only places drivers can efficiently park and eat while on the road, are more likely to stock cheeseburgers and Salisbury steaks than salads or fresh fruit. A small but increasing number of truck stops offer gyms. A truck driver can be seated for up to 11 hours a day, and there are clearly no standing-desk options.
“We need decent restaurants or food that is something besides stinking McDonald’s or Subway and things like that,” Steve Manley, 51, who has been driving for more than 20 years, previously told Business Insider. “Trucking will leave you with a messed-up back and many other problems if you are not very careful.”
They have to wait for hours, unpaid, for their trucks to be unloaded or reloaded.
Truckers lose $1.3 billion annually waiting at warehouses for loads.
“At some of these companies, it’s like being an indentured servant,” Bill Hieatt, who has been a trucker for 20 years, previously told Business Insider.
Truckers such as Hieatt are expected to spend hours at warehouses waiting for their shipments to load or unload. Warehouses often do not have shipments ready for truckers, even when they’re on time, and that results in truck drivers being “detained.”
Those shippers, which might include small businesses and major retailers, should load or unload in a two-hour window in accordance with industry standards. After that, shippers are expected to pay for every hour that a truck driver is detained at a warehouse.
Except they usually don’t. In a 2016 survey administered by the freight marketplace DAT Solutions, of drivers from 257 trucking companies, only 3% said they received detention pay for at least 90% of their claims to the shippers.
The job is horribly isolating.
Many truckers have told Business Insider that because truckers are away from home for weeks at a time, their relationships with their spouses and children were strained.
Rob Shulin, 57, has two 30-something children. He was a truck driver for their entire childhoods.
“I was never around for Father’s Day, birthdays, and most holidays,” Shulin previously told Business Insider. “Now that I am home, my kids are grown and gone. A very lonely feeling indeed.”
And further, it’s simply isolating. Of the mental-health concerns that truck drivers experience, loneliness topped the list in a 2012 study. Nearly 30% of drivers surveyed said that being alone all day and away from their family was a “significant issue” affecting their mental health.
One trucker named Rob told Business Insider last year that he had not hugged someone in months; the last person was his mother.
“She met me as I passed about 100 miles from her house, to drop off some food and see me while I got fuel,” Rob, 52, told Business Insider. “I visited for about 15 minutes. Then I had to go, because my drive clock was running, and I had 1,200 miles to go within 36 hours. And Mom got to drive 100-plus miles back home.”
Few truck drivers are unionized.
When truck drivers have gripes related to their work, they, unlike many blue-collar workers, can’t complain to a union representative or strike.
Fewer than 10% of America’s 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers are unionized. And independent truck drivers, called owner-operators, are outright barred from forming unions.
That makes it difficult for truckers, who are spread all over the country and often working solo, to advocate for their rights. Today, many truck drivers feel that their voices aren’t heard when policies that affect them are created.
Independent efforts for truckers to strike — like this year’s Black Smoke Matters movement — have largely failed.
Some strikes outside of trucker unions have succeeded. In 1973 and 1974, independent truck drivers organized over CB radio to shut down trucking across the US for days to protest skyrocketing oil prices. Truckers won their demands after the shutdown, and the strike gave rise to the influential Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
Partially thanks to that, their pay has fallen dramatically.
A Business Insider analysis found that median wages for truck drivers had decreased by 21% on average since 1980. In some areas, they’d declined as much as 50%.
The average truck driver in the 1970s was well paid. It was the sort of high-quality, blue-collar job that many lament no longer exists. In 1977, the mean earnings of a unionized truck driver stood at $96,552 in 2018 dollars. At least 80% of drivers were unionized at this time.
A trucker’s median income today is $43,680.
“To be able to be a truck driver used to be quite a good blue-collar, middle-class job, but over the past 40 years it has kind of dwindled away,” Gordon Klemp, a principal at the National Transportation Institute, previously told Business Insider.
Unions also lost much of their power. Membership in Teamsters, once one of the most powerful unions around, has declined dramatically. In 1974, there were 2 million truckers in Teamsters.Now there are 75,000.
People assume the worst of them.
Still, truck drivers are plagued by several stereotypes: that they are lazy or uneducated, engage in sex trafficking, cause accidents, and so on.
“We are the ones doing the all the work — meanwhile, everyone reaps the benefits as we keep America moving,” Casey Smith, a truck driver in Orlando, Florida, told Business Insider. “I really wish we as drivers … could get the respect and appreciation deserved. We sacrifice not seeing family, staying up 11 hours a day driving or 14 on duty, eating poorly, watching out for reckless cars and robbers.”
Despite all that, truckers aren’t paid much but have to work a lot.
“Some drivers can’t afford a shower for $14, pay their bills, or even a decent meal,” Smith added. “We have to eat ramen noodles.”
Want to save and make more money on the road? Learn how with our benefits.