The price you pay

by Lou Smyrlis

OTTAWA, Ont. – How much are you willing to sacrifice for financial security?

A lot, it seems, if you’re the typical company driver employed by a for-hire carrier in this country. The results of a recently published report on truck driver work patterns indicate that the people behind the wheel are willing to put in long hours – some are even willing to work seven-day work weeks – in exchange for higher earnings.

Although for-hire drivers earn slightly more than clerical, construction or transportation workers, their average pay of $13.94 per hour is seven per cent below that of manufacturing machine operators or assemblers and just over one half the average wage earned by workers in natural and applied sciences occupations, the report by Irwin Bess of Statistics Canada’s Transportation Division reveals.

The results look even worse when you consider the age makeup of the driver pool. Truck driving employs proportionately more people over age 55 – when seniority should bump wages to high levels – than other occupations. Conversely, truck driving employs fewer people under age 25 – when wages are at their lowest levels – than other occupations.

A cited labor force survey found that 13 per cent of all truck drivers were over 55 in 1998, compared with less than 10 per cent of workers in other occupations; and only seven per cent of drivers were under age 25, compared with 15 per cent in other occupations.

But what drivers lack in hourly wage rates, they try to compensate for by working longer hours. The 35-hour-work week is a reality for just five per cent of company drivers. More than half (52 per cent) of for-hire company drivers usually work 50 or more hours per week and about one third (31 per cent) work 60 or more hours per week, according to the study. In comparison, only 22 per cent of drivers working for private carriers typically work 50 hours or more, and only 11 per cent put in more than 60 hours each week. Only two per cent of workers in other industries put in 60 or more hours per week.

One in five for-hire drivers works most Saturdays and for 10 per cent of the driver pool, seven-day work weeks are typical. The nature of the work may not leave many drivers much choice about working long hours. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of for-hire company drivers work for carriers involved in long-haul cartage and about one third (26 per cent) are employed by firms that receive more than one half of their revenues from service between Canada and the U.S.

But it also seems drivers want to work long hours. The report cites the results of a 1995 survey of drivers who usually worked 50 or more hours per week. Sixty-four per cent said they would work the same hours if given the choice, and 22 per cent wanted to work more hours for more pay. Only 13 per cent wanted fewer hours for less pay. The payback for working longer hours is substantial. A driver working 60 or more hours in a typical week earns $854 or $44,400 a year. Unionized truck drivers putting in long hours are even better off. They average $898 in weekly earnings or $46,700 per year.

In essence, truck drivers are using long hours as a way to fight back against a market trend depressing their financial worth – the decline in earnings for those with less than high school education or little formal training. Almost three-quarters of the nation’s truck drivers (73.1 per cent) have less than a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree, compared to 47.7 per cent for all other occupations.

Despite their educational shortcomings, however, working long hours is helping truck drivers earn incomes comparable to those in occupations requiring more education. The report cites several examples: The average pay of $854 for drivers working 60 or more hours per week is higher than the average weekly earnings of contractors and supervisors in trades and transportation ($837).

Of course, many of the hours truck drivers work are not spent behind the wheel. A Dry Van Drivers Survey conducted by the Truckload Carriers’ Associations in the U.S. this year found that the typical dry van driver has five stops per week to load and unload. He spends 2.4 hours per stop waiting to load and 2.0 hours per stop waiting to unload. That works out to 22 hours per week of unproductive waiting. Theoretically, the waiting time could be used as off-duty time to sleep and that may in fact be what ends up written in the logbook. But in reality many drivers say they dare not sleep in a busy yard knowing that doing so is just an invitation for the driver next in line to pull ahead. Another factor that may be pushing truck drivers to work longer hours for more pay is the fact that they are more than likely to be the sole bread winner for their families.

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