AYLESFORD, N. S. –When Kerrigan Weihers, owner of Kerrigan Weihers Trucking & Excavation, in Aylesford, Nova Scotia began trucking in 1988, he made a good living hauling aggregate and asphalt for the Department of Transportation.
“I’d get $250 a day and make $100,” he recalls. But these days, he says, “You get $600-$700 a day and you make $100. Now there is no-one making a living just hauling for the DoT.”
That $100 net, after fuel and driver wages, is only if the operator is doing work for the N. S. Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (DoT) that is eligible for its fuel surcharge. But other costs have gone up too.
Add unpaid waiting time, contractors overbooking trucks and unpaid travel to and from the job site, and you have an industry on thin gruel.
Remove the surcharge and you have truck-sized lawn ornaments.
“We have had guys go to work, make no money, rip off a mud flap and not have the money from the day’s work to pay for the mud flap,” says Wayne Onda, executive director of the Truckers Association of Nova Scotia (TANS). In fact, Onda notes, “The DoT has a hard job finding trucks. Anyone who has private jobs won’t do it.”
The DoT pays a fuel surcharge for so-called 80/20 work, an unwritten rule for tendered jobs designed to keep local truckers in the game.
At least 80% of the trucks the prime contractor uses must belong to TANS members; the other 20% can be his own trucks.
According to Onda, the contractor can ask to have the 80/20 rule suspended so he can use his own trucks or non-TANS trucks, but for these the DoT does not pay the surcharge.
In 2006 the DoT set up the current surcharge system, which increases or decreases the surcharge to reflect the cost of diesel at the end of each month.
In one government example, an operator earns $597.52 in a day. After paying for fuel, his net is $210.02.
The fuel cost 64.85% of his day’s gross. The surcharge bumps the gross up to $728.97 to compensate for the fuel, lowering the cost of fuel to 53.15% of his day’s gross.
The problem is that other expenses, such as insurance, plates, tires and repairs have gone up too, so the operator’s net is still less than it used to be.
There is another problem: When a contractor puts out the call for TANS trucks, TANS dispatchers make their first calls in the county in which the work is being done.
Lucky operators will be close to the gravel pit and the construction.
Others may have to drive up to 300 or so unpaid kilometres round trip to the job site each day, likely turning jobs into money losers.
“We have no real big stick, no bargaining power to get paid for the trip into work and home,” says Onda.
Some drivers leave their trucks on-site and carpool. Others tell the dispatchers “no thanks” and drop to the bottom of the rotating call list.
“The more times a TANS guy refuses work, the more he is penalized,” Onda says.
“The government wants TANS to guarantee trucks, but how can I tell a driver to come to work and lose money?”
Contractors also overbook dump trucks so their men and equipment will not be idle. The TANS drivers take the hit. “They don’t care if you wait an hour,” Weihers says.
Donald Whynot is the secretary- treasurer of TANS and owner of Donald Whynot Trucking in Danesville, Queens County.
He says,”We have been pushing to get a waiting time. We always say,’We don’t mind giving the first hour, but we should be paid after that.’ We hear of guys showing up at the asphalt plant at 6 a. m. and waitin ’til 11 a. m. We have asked the government to put pay for waiting time in the tenders, but they won’t.They say no.”
Work without the fuel surcharge sounds like slow starvation: “You wouldn’t make anything without the fuel surcharge,” Weihers says.
So is TANS in trouble? Onda cannot say for sure, but he does note that current membership is 576 members and 899 trucks, down from a high of 1,200 trucks and 1,500 members.
Some operators are near big jobs, like the twinning of the 101 but, he says “The newer guys are having a hellish time. Older guys are having trouble with no work in their areas.”
When I asked Whynot how many years TANS has left, he said “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
When I offered to call him in a couple of years and find out, he said, “I’ll probably be out of the business by then. I’ll be drawing an old age pension and the devil with it.” •