Mike Nichols, a truck driver based in Wisconsin, is probably one of the lucky ones. Unlike many of America’s 2.2 million truck drivers, he doesn’t waste hours of his week waiting to be loaded or unloaded.
“My customers and their customers are excited to see me,” said Nichols, who mostly hauls agricultural loads rather than trailers full of, say, Amazon orders, groceries or furniture. “It’s amazing how stark the difference is between how they treat bulk carriers versus the way most treat the outbound box trailers.”
Detention time, as it’s called, is a bizarre feature of being a trucker. Few outside of trucking know about this aggravating waste of time. Per FreightWaves SONAR data, truck drivers spend an average of 119 minutes per pickup or drop-off waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Drivers are expected to wait for free during the first two hours of detention, and then receive hourly pay for any additional hour.
If that seems absurdly inefficient, it is. A 2018 study from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General found that truck drivers lose $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion in earnings because of detention time. What’s more, each 15-minute increase in detention increases the average expected crash rate by 6.2%. Detention isn’t just frustrating for drivers; it’s potentially dangerous.
“This becomes a safety issue,” said Isaias Sanchez, a truck driver based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “Truckers are always in a hurry to get back on the road and that can lead to accidents.”
So, I chatted with two former executives from the food and beverage world to learn more — Rob Haddock and Ben Richey. They’re the guys who used to get calls from truck drivers asking why on earth they can’t get out of their warehouses more quickly. The reasons boil down to this:
Big brands aren’t falling all over themselves to address either issue.
Warehouses need to hire more workers
Richey pointed to a pretty obvious reason for why it takes forever to get truck drivers loaded and unloaded: There just aren’t enough warehouse workers. That problem, Richey said, compounded during the early 2020s, when companies at large struggled to find workers.
Pay increases have followed. About 1.8 million people work in the warehousing sector, per federal data. In November 2023, the latest period for which data is available, warehouse workers and management earned just under $24 an hour on average. That’s a $1.50-an-hour increase from the year before, and $4 higher than five years ago. This pay is higher than most blue-collar or service work, according to Business Insider.
Still, that does not appear to keep warehouses staffed. Warehouse work is notoriously demanding, with chaotic hours, challenging quotas and higher exposure to workplace injuries.
“The general trend has been we can’t fill all our open roles,” Richey said. “We can’t keep up with the pace of work.”
Antiquated warehouses are no match for the modern shopper
There are two common ways a truck can get loaded:
Drop-and-hook, where a driver simply unhooks the trailer or hooks up to a new one. Haddock said drivers can get in and out of a warehouse in about 30 minutes in that system. Warehouse workers load or unload the trailer without needing the driver to be there.
Live load, where a driver waits while being loaded or unloaded. Haddock said that takes around three hours, in large part because you’re waiting for workers to be available to do the job.
Drop-and-hook is becoming the norm. However, it requires more space. That’s a problem for longtime brands that have their warehouses and distribution centers in areas where they can’t expand, Haddock said. He estimated that the warehouses of most established brands are 50 to 70 years old.
Obviously, the U.S. consumer base has massively expanded since then. So have the number of stock-keeping units, or SKUs, that each company sells. SKU proliferation, as insiders call it, is pretty out of control. Brands sunset a certain number of SKUs each year, but plenty more seem to join in. Some products aren’t particularly popular, but retailers might insist on keeping those products alive for a regional tranche of shoppers.
Consumer packaged goods companies also offer each product in a variety of sizes — for example, a six-pack of gum or a more jumbo portion of the same offering. “We as American consumers are probably extremely spoiled,” Haddock said.
The spoils of consumerism are great for the average grocery shopper but can certainly muck up supply chains.
“Depending on how old the plants are, their facilities were designed for a very limited number of offerings,” Haddock said. “Now those facilities are just overwhelmed with the amount of complexity.”
Big brands are not falling all over themselves to address either issue
Crazy-long detention time seems to be a result of company cultures that just don’t prioritize logistics.
“When the logistics group is asking for money to improve, they’re also going up against every other department in the organization,” Haddock said. “Unless the company has endless funds to distribute, the funds go to the departments that have the most compelling story as to why it’s needed.
“Let’s say there’s a million dollars. The sales team can say, ‘Well, if you give me a million dollars in marketing, I can sell 10,000 more cases,’” Haddock added. “Manufacturing will say, ‘If you give me a million dollars, I can produce 100,000 more cases.’ If you give logistics a million dollars, they’re going to say, ‘We think it’ll improve the efficiency of the warehouse.’ It probably will, but you have to take a leap of faith.”
That attention to logistics has to come from the on-the-ground management too. Richey said supervisors need to engage in “soup-to-nuts” planning the day before, then pack up trucks or stage inventory to accommodate whatever is happening the next day. “It all falls into place when you have leadership that really cares,” Richey said.
Perhaps the most cynical reason for why shippers gobble up truckers’ time is that it’s free — at least the first two hours. It’s unsurprising that retailers would consume every minute of that.
But Haddock said there is a consequence of that so-called free good. Trucking companies are going to be more hesitant to work with a facility that’s known to take up truck drivers’ time. He said, ultimately, notorious facilities have to pay above market rate to lure drivers to haul for them. They’re also likely to get slapped with detention time pay — to the tune of $25 to $100 an hour or more.
At a certain point, many retailers are paying whether or not there’s detention time; either they’re updating their facilities to get drivers out the door faster or paying carriers in extra charges. Haddock and Richey (and likely most truck drivers) believe it would make the most sense to simply update the warehouses.
Ultimately, it’s likely the consumer who ends up paying for detention time.
“That cost gets embedded probably in the finished good cost of goods at the end of the day, and it shows up on the consumer shelf,” Haddock said.
“It’s unhealthy, and it drives inflation.”
David Summitt is the president of a midsize trucking company based in Clarksville, Indiana, employing around 130 drivers. He said that come bid season on new contracts, he tries to avoid facilities that involve live loads or unloads.
Still, with hundreds of thousands of small trucking companies, especially ones that might feel emboldened to turn down even a crappy job, it’s unlikely that detention time will ever fully be fixed.
“I have watched our industry for many years, and this seems to be one of those issues that just never goes away,” Summitt said. “I think until there is a government-mandated set of rules for shippers and carriers to follow, this situation is not going to get much better.”
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