Trucker, Protect Thyself: Formal contracts and paperwork are an owner-operator’s best defence

John G Smith

There is a certain pride that every owner-operator should enjoy. Mastering skills at the wheel is just the beginning of their professional journey. Our trucking industry’s hybrid of driver and entrepreneur is expected to master trucks and business ledgers alike.

Sadly, far too many fail because of a lack of focus on the latter point.

I hear their stories all too often, and it’s heartbreaking. You can tell when the truck keys are an extension of who they are.

So it was when an owner-operator called my office at the end of August. He shared several examples of how he believed he had been shortchanged by the fleet using his services. There never seemed to be any paperwork to back up charges for late loads or spoiled freight. He had to retrieve a truck parked in Calgary when his own driver was left stranded for a week in the wait for a backhaul. In the two months before the business relationship ultimately came to an end, the company tallied up $20,000 in bills that remain outstanding.

It is the type of loss that threatens more than a balance sheet. Depending on an owner-operator’s cash flow, this is a financial hit that could push someone out of the industry entirely. Maybe they would return as a driver. Maybe not.

The caller said he wasn’t alone, either. He is certain the fleet was shortchanging everyone who was pushing for a contract.

Let me clarify that. They weren’t looking for a new contract. These owner-operators were looking for their first contract. He had four trucks and trailers traveling between Toronto and Western Canada – without so much as a signature. A logbook is the only proof that he hauled freight for the company in the first place.

“They can say anything they want because nothing is written on paper. I can’t turn anywhere because I have nothing but the logbook,” he said. “You do the job. You keep your logbook legal, and things like this …”

Oh, there was always a promise that the documents would come. And there was always a reason why they didn’t appear. One day it was because the company was restructuring. The next day the paperwork was almost drafted.

As much as I loathe to say it, the days of closing a deal with a handshake are done. The lines of a formal business agreement between a fleet and owner-operator is the only thing that will protect everyone’s interest if the relationship sours.

He called the Ministry of Labor. Not their problem. He isn’t a company employee. He called the Ministry of Transportation. Not their problem. They focus on things like the truck’s mechanical condition. Without a formal contract, success in a court is unlikely, too.

His own drivers have been paid and sent looking for other work. Three trailers and two trucks have been sold to help cover the payments on equipment that remains.

That’s his problem.

And it should serve as a cautionary tale for any owner-operator who is hauling freight on a promise alone.

Trucker, protect thyself.

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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