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How Truckers Are Paid

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I would like to thank everyone for reading my first article, I had no idea it would be so well received or get so much attention. If you liked the first article, check back occasionally, I will be writing more. I am surprised and encouraged by how many people were interested. In this article, I am going to talk about one subject — how truckers are paid. If you don’t already know how trucker pay works, you’re likely going to be surprised, maybe even shocked, but you’ll understand why there’s a driver shortage.

If you think $2.13 an hour is far too low of a wage for servers, as I do, it’s worse for truck drivers. While servers are paid almost nothing hourly, with the expectation that tips will make up the difference, truck drivers get NO guarantees of ANY wage, and we are NOT expected to get tips.

Truck drivers, farm workers, and restaurant staff are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). While many states have corrected some of the worst abuses against farm workers and restaurant staff (and many have not), the one profession that is still untouched by any reform is trucking, largely because of federal interstate commerce exemptions. Trucking companies will use every loophole they can to not pay their workers, and the laws are so loose that employers can literally make up the rules as they go. If you’re an employer who wants to rob their employees blind, trucking is the profession for you.

Truck drivers can legally be paid in multiple ways. This is true for all levels of trucking, either direct employee, ‘independent contractor’ owner ops leased to a company, or owner operators under their own authority. They can be paid hourly, a percentage of the load, by the mile, flat rate, or a combination of all of these. But in all of these cases, the wage laws that apply to 99% of the public who are paid hourly do not apply to trucker pay.

Before that, however, I want to make it clear that large amounts of unpaid time for everyone but hourly drivers are not a bug of this system, they are a feature of it. The system encourages drivers to lie about how much time they work for free, by paying them only if they are moving, or a pittance(or nothing)if they are stopped. Over the road (OTR) drivers can only legally work 70 hours a week, local drivers can only work 60, so what does a driver trying to make ends meet do? You lie about how much time you sit, as you aren’t getting paid, and will only be paid when you are driving. Mathematically, you have to “save” every single hour you can to drive, so you do everything to cheat, wherever you can, to save those hours. For example, if you are stuck in a dock for 6 hours, you log that as sleeper berth/off duty, otherwise it means a cut in pay. You are basically given the choice to lie about how much you worked so you have a chance at making a living, or tell the truth and have no chance at making a living.

When I did OTR, I was on paper logs. The only ones I did that were honest were the ones on my off days, every other single log was cheated in some way (averaging speed, lying about dock time, etc). Even though I admit I was lying, I was a lot more honest about it than many, a lot of guys were running two log books at the same time, so they could work nearly 24 hours a day. Logs are now electronic — they hook to the speedometer (and other things) in your truck so it is impossible to lie about your drive time. But it’s still possible to lie about the time you aren’t moving, which EVERYBODY does. All it leads to is drivers working 100 hour weeks or more instead of their logged hours, which means they are being paid far LESS hourly than they think. It also leads to dramatic spikes in tired truckers (you can sit in a dock all day for nothing, then, since you lied about your hours, you’re expected to drive/work for the next 14 hours), all because drivers are being forced to work for literally nothing. The electronic logs DID increase pay, but only because it took away carriers ‘looking the other way’ and accepting paper logs of drivers they knew were fake. But the overall system still exists: long periods of time that drivers are forced to work for nothing (dock time, waiting at ports, tarp time, strap time, fuel, pre-trip, traffic, breakdown, the list is nearly endless), and drivers lying about their hours so they can hopefully run enough miles to make a living. It’s simply not worth it for drivers to follow the log rules. Had I not cheated my logs, I might have made 40% of the already crap wages I did make.

I will go through the general wage structure for each leg of the trucking industry and explain how it works.

OTR drivers:

Over The Road (OTR) drivers are your typical long haul truck driver. They are generally out for two to three weeks at a time, and get one day off at home for every week they are out. If you hear of ‘Regional’ drivers, they are nearly the same as OTR drivers, except they generally run a set region, and are home most weekends. OTR and regional drivers are primarily paid by the mile.

If you are an OTR/regional driver, and your advertised pay rate is 50 cents a mile (CPM), that should translate to around $30 an hour, depending on the legal speed limit in your state. $30 an hour to drive a truck is not huge money, but there are far lower paying jobs in trucking.

But 50 CPM does not actually equate to $30 an hour. You only actually make $30 an hour if you were continually averaging 60 MPH. For example, if you get caught in rush hour traffic, and it takes you two hours to go 30 miles, which is not uncommon in any major metro area in America, you made $7.50 an hour for those two hours.

So when you pull in and deliver/pick up a load, you do that literally for free, and this comes off the hours of service you can legally drive that week! Some companies will flat rate a delivery/pick up at maybe $20 for each delivery and pick up. In a best case scenario, it will likely take at least an hour to load, but in some cases it can take 8 hours or more, and in some cases you have to wait days to load/unload. Either way, the best the driver makes for this pickup/delivery is $20. If it takes a driver four hours to get loaded/empty, that $20 comes out to $5 an hour. This is below the federal minimum wage. But a lot of carriers will pay nothing for load/unload, and say that time spent loading/unloading is included in the pay by the mile schedule.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of a typical 1,000 mile run. Again, this is an absolute best case scenario, speed averaged at 60 MPH, and assuming $20 to load and $20 to unload. I will put an actual hourly rate to this, and it applies to this run only, but you could work it out for any scenario with these variables.

1,000 miles at 60 MPH is 16.6 hours of drive time alone. At 50 CPM that’s $500. Let’s figure two hours to load, and two hours to unload, another $40. This trip will take about 2 days when loading/unloading time is included.

The total trip pay here is $540. The total hours for this trip (hours that come off the total legal amount of hours you can work that week) is 21.5 (including fueling and inspections). Realistically, add a couple hours to this trip at least for traffic, but again, this is best case scenario.

$540 for 21.5 hours (total trip time) is $25.12 an hour. This will be the absolute top hourly wage you will make this week. You do NOT get overtime ever, no matter how many hours you work. But you also likely had to pay to park your truck at a truck stop at least once, so take off $20. Truckers might pay $80 a week(or more)for truck parking, which they pay out of pocket. For this trip, you are down to $520 total pay, and your hourly is now $24.18 an hour.

Most carriers want you to run 2800–3200 miles a week, and advertise their weekly pay based on an expected 3,000 miles a week. 3000 miles a week at 50 CPM is $1500 a week. plus load/unload pay. If it’s three 1,000 miles runs, then 3,000 miles a week is going to be 64.5 hours which is $24.80 an hour. But if you are doing three 1,000 miles runs, you are going to accrue other working hours between jobs just as a matter of logistics. And remember, no overtime. If this were an overtime situation (40 hours regular pay, plus 20 hours overtime) that regular pay would be $21.43 an hour. Federal regulation allow OTR drivers 70 hours (legally), and even if they kept within that restriction, the hourly pay has now dropped to $22.85, and again if we were talking about an overtime situation that’s $18.82 as pre-overtime hourly. And remember we are talking about best case. Everything goes down from there.

None of this takes into account how much money you have to spend just to be on the road. In addition to parking, drivers are paying for food and showers at truck stop pricing, which is outrageous beyond belief. You can easily spend $300 a week just to be on the road. This also assumes you will get 3,000 miles every week (and I promise, you will NOT.) Only got 2,000 miles last week? Your maximum pay is automatically limited, because this is a profession that is your only job. It’s not possible to be a trucker and something on the side. And you still had to pay the same amount to be on the road as if you were running a full 3,000.

I worked OTR for about six months when I started driving in 2001. This was back when paper logs were the industry standard. It was a lot easier to cheat on hours back them, but what that really means is I worked a ton of hours for literally nothing. Above I gave the best case scenario, but even with electronic logs the driver probably actually worked 100 hours or more that week, which means they grossed $15 an hour. And lived in their truck. (How are drivers getting past electronic logs? They are logging times waiting at a shipper as being off duty or sleeping. Is this legal? No. But unless you do this, you’re not going to get your loads delivered and remain available for other loads. This is an economic reality. You’re stuck doing work for free, though illegally, and it’s often the only way you can make any kind of reasonable paycheck).

When I was OTR, I worked 70–130 hour weeks for $300–700 a week. I made a whopping .27 CPM, and the hours I worked had zero to do with my pay. Some weeks I got a ton of miles and made decent money, some weeks I had to load/unload a lot, some weeks I got stuck in traffic, or spent multiple hours driving on snow chains. All of this affects your income level. Yes, in 2001 I worked for $2.30 an hour.

The OTR industry has over a 90% yearly turnover rate and has the audacity to wonder why. You’re gone all the time, you pay a ton of money just to go to work, and you have no guaranteed income. You work large blocks of time for literally nothing, and you won’t have the most basic pay rates and pay rules that 99% of the country’s hourly workers get. You may not even make minimum wage.

Port Drivers:

I’m not sure which is the bigger scam, flat rate, pay by the mile, or pay by percentage, but in the end, it’s all the same. You are going to get a set rate to do a job no matter how long it takes, and you don’t get to control most of the things that delay you. Ports/carriers don’t care how long you sit, because they are not going to pay you for detention time.

Port drivers are usually paid on a percentage basis. Employees are typically paid around 30% of the freight rate (the rate a carrier charges a shipper to have the load hauled), and independent contractors leased to carriers are typically paid around 75% of the contracted amount for container delivery. There are some port drivers who are regular, hourly employees(overtime rules may/may not apply), but not many. The next paragraph will talk about percentage pay drivers.

In both scenarios, employee or contractor, the driver does not get to see what the carrier is actually getting paid for that load, even though it is federally required for carriers to show the amount they are getting paid. It never happens. Drivers have to take the word of their employer or carrier that they are getting the proper percentage, with no way to check. However, everybody knows the carriers are lying, especially now, as ‘congestion fees’ are being added onto most containers coming/going to the ports, shipping lines publicly announce these fees, and the drivers are getting nothing. Why do independent contractor drivers put up with this scenario (why don’t they ask to see the contracts so they can confirm their rate?) It’s simple — they have no clout within the system to make demands. No union, no governmental enforcement, and no time or money to hire legal counsel. All they can really do is say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a load, and if you say ‘no’, the carrier dispatchers can definitely punish you by only offering you low pay loads for a while.

I will give a quick, easy scenario about rates I know exist today for independent contractor owner ops. These are extremely short runs between ports (about 15 miles). An independent contractor is paid $85 for one of these runs, as they are assumed to be a one hour round trip. However these trips can take up to four hours at a time, and two hours is not uncommon. This is pretty easy math to figure out, and the drivers have to pay all their expenses on top of this.

My friend Shauntai Robinson was an independent contractor owner operator leased to a carrier in South Carolina. She has a lot of in depth perspective on this particular sector of the trucking workforce.The Truck Driver Shortage is a LIE! Let me tell you how…There is a big problem in America! No, I’m not talking about the issues of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia…

Local Drivers:

This is me. I’m home every day, paid hourly, and I get overtime after 8 hours (not 40). I’m also a Teamster. There are a lot of local drivers who are paid hourly just like every other hourly employee in America. But as I told you in the beginning, there are hardly any pay rules in trucking. Local drivers can be paid by the load, mile, percentage, or hourly with no overtime.

I had been driving six months total OTR when I landed a local job in the spring of 2002. Due to insurance regulations, most companies won’t hire drivers under 25, but this one hired me when I was 23, and said they would pay me hourly. It was $16.50 an hour in 2002, and I jumped at the chance. I had been in the industry a short while, and I thought I knew what the term ‘hourly pay’ meant. I was wrong.

I was hired by a 100 year old local trucking company that was shrinking very quickly (they went out of business a couple years after I left). This company was an interstate carrier, primarily Washington and Oregon, but they had some runs to Utah and Montana. This is very important, as these runs qualified the company as an interstate OTR company by federal law. This meant they could legally run the log books, which also meant they could screw their drivers out of overtime, even though we were paid hourly and many of us never left the state (I never left the state).

I had a special job. I was one of three drivers at the company hired to run a Moffett truck (a special semi that has a forklift attached to the trailer), and I was contracted to a masonry company. While I was technically employed by the freight company (I’ll call them FC here), I had nothing to do with them unless my truck broke down or I needed to hand in paperwork. I went to an FC company terminal maybe twice a month. The masonry company paid for Moffet trucks by the hour, it was a massive money making account for FC. Most drivers refused to run a Moffett truck. They are simply more difficult to operate. I was an exception. I was really good at Moffett’s, and they paid better. I actually didn’t want anything to do with general freight, but at this point, the FC paid everyone hourly. This would soon change.

Regular freight drivers made a couple bucks less an hour than I did when I started. While driving a Moffett truck is a huge pain compared to general freight, at least Moffett drivers knew what they would make hourly. That changed when FC went to a local, pay by the mile system, flat rated runs, or a combination of the two. It was a drastic pay cut from about $14 an hour with no overtime pay to about $10 an hour with no overtime. For example, they had a dedicated account hauling toilet paper from the plant to a distribution center. It was a 75 mile round trip, but it was about three hours per run total. At $14 an hour, each run was $42. Under the new pay system, (for which FC promised we would make ‘much more money’), that same three hour run paid a total of $26. Instead of making $126 a day, now you made $78 a day, and all of their jobs took similar massive pay cuts. As a Moffett driver, I stayed where I was at $16.50 an hour and I was always on call for the masonry company.

I rarely worked under the flat rate general freight pay, and when I did I never made more than $8 an hour at it. It was literally more than a 50% pay cut to work general freight. I needed 80 hours a month to qualify for health care, and the ONLY time I worked general freight was in the ultra slow winter months to keep my benefits. After that, unless it was for the masonry company, I refused to work. FC threatened to fire me (they didn’t fire me), they threatened to challenge my unemployment (I wasn’t filing anyway), but I flat out told them that I would not work for those wages. After the switch to pay by mile, this is what their regular FC drivers told them as well, and they started quitting in droves. The masonry company protected me, and by this time I was running the whole account, doing all the billable hours (all for the same wages I started at), and FC knew if they fired me the masonry company would hire me directly. Then FC would have to deal with the masonry company directly, which they did not want to do. The masonry company wouldn’t hire me due to contractual obligations with FC and at this point I was still under 25, so they wouldn’t insure me, therefore jumping directly to the masonry company wasn’t an option yet.

The masonry company did have its own drivers though, and they were Teamsters. As a non union contractor at the time, I worked alongside drivers doing the exact same job as I did, making about 1/3 more than I did. They got OT after 8, double time after 12, OT on all hours on Saturdays (double time after 8 on Saturdays), double time on Sundays, superior health care, and a pension.

I worked for the FC for two years. I learned the myriad ways trucking can legally screw drivers out of money. The FC made an art out of it. In the end, the FC sold the Moffett equipment to the masonry company, and I became a direct employee of the masonry company. I was there for 11.5 years total (2 years contractor, 9.5 years direct employee). The FC eventually went out of business a couple of years after I left. However, there are multiple hourly trucking companies, some local, some national, that make up any pay rules they want at any time they want. I know of a large, national, LTL freight company that doesn’t pay overtime until after 55 hours, because they can. Most national LTL companies are overtime after 40, yet this national LTL company pays overtime only after 55 hours, and wonders why it has a hard time finding workers. Which employer would anyone reading this work for, an employer that pays overtime after 40 hours a week, or one that pays overtime after 55 hours a week?

Trucking, no matter what part of it you are in, rules your whole life. I can start anywhere from 3–9 AM, and I work until I am done, whether its 8, 10, or 14 hours. I have absolutely no schedule. I have been at this for twenty years now, and in those twenty years, I have NEVER had a true 40 hour work week(I have had way more hours and way less hours, but never 40 hours). I do not have the luxury of knowing what time I will go to work every day or what time I will be home, but I do have the luxury of hourly pay, being home every day, and the basic overtime rules that everyone but truck drivers take for granted. I will accept nothing less. If I lose my current job, I will not work for another company that doesn’t pay hourly with normal overtime rules. I will become one of the hundreds of thousands of people who still have valid CDLs (commercial drivers license) that refuse to work in the profession. The conditions I will work under are what 99% of the public takes for granted. The trucking industry, however, makes its own rules, to the point where some sectors of the industry, (LARGE sectors) rob truck drivers of wages far beyond anything that the biggest mob family would ever dream of.

Here is a novel idea for the trucking industry: ALL HOURS WORKED ARE ALL HOURS PAID, just like every other industry. Trucking has done EVERYTHING possible to drive wages down to nothing, and for the most part, it has succeeded, but the industry has the audacity to wonder why nobody wants to drive anymore. We won’t drive because you won’t pay, and the trucking industry’s biggest complaint today is basically “I can’t find people to work for free.”

The trucking industry shortages are self-inflicted. Until trucking pays like every other industry, it will continue to have driver retention problems, and they will only get worse. Trucking is an old profession, drivers are retiring far more quickly than they are being replaced, and nobody is coming to work for nothing anymore.

Sadly, the trucking industry’s response to its horrible pay practice has been to threaten automation: they are going to replace us all with robots. The industry is willfully blind to the situation. It wants people to work massive hours for virtually no pay, blames the workers if they don’t work for free, and then threatens the workers with having no job at all if they don’t submit to these conditions. Then it wonders why people won’t go to school to get a job the industry itself says won’t be around in five years. Again, self-inflicted. This industry literally won’t even pay for chassis they desperately need (and chassis are really cheap compared to trucks), doesn’t want to pay its workers, but they are supposedly going to pay for millions of robot trucks in an amount to drive freight rates down to nothing for everybody. Mark my words, automation will create a truck shortage the same way the trucking industry is having a driver shortage today.

Furthermore, the trucking industry knows automation is mostly a bluff — a threat designed to keep wages down (even if ‘robotrucks’ can work in limited capacity). First, a large part of the industry is working for almost nothing now. The industry is well aware of how much free labor it gets and doesn’t want to do anything to change that. Second, no robot can do many of the tasks drivers do every day for free now, such as dealing with customers, directing the loading/unloading of their trucks, sitting for hours at a port trouble window and getting those problems straightened out, or dealing with the multitude of daily mechanical problems that drivers fix on the side of the road. The trucking industry would quickly find out the same thing Uber found out about their self-driving cars, which is that when a person isn’t on board, the company is on the hook for everything that goes on in that truck. As expensive as trucks are with drivers, they are going to be far more expensive without them. Let’s be realistic — trucking doesn’t want to pay for anything now, they aren’t going to want to pay for robot trucks either.

I hope this has given everyone a window into the world of trucking. When I say, “the trucking industry doesn’t want to pay,” most people get it. What they don’t understand is the number of ways that the trucking industry is legally set up to make drivers work nearly endless hours for free, or the lengths the industry will go to rob them out of what little pay they do get. It truly is an industry like no other, and there is no doubt in my mind that no profession works for free more than an OTR truck driver. Until this stops, there will continue to be a driver shortage. And again, it’s not really a driver shortage. It’s a shortage of drivers willing to work for free.

For decades, the trucking industry has done everything it can to drive wages to the bottom. The industry has now found the bottom. Nobody is coming to replace those that are leaving.

The trucking industry could get people back tomorrow. It’s simple: ALL HOURS WORKED ARE PAID. This should be their new motto. Advertise jobs as $30 an hour, plus overtime after 8 hours. Pay for parking, load and unload, breakdowns. Pay drivers like every other industry pays its workers. The driver shortage will resolve itself overnight. They have the power to fix this problem. When truck drivers are interviewed about the “driver shortage,” universally, it comes back to pay. Yes, it really is this simple.

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