Hit Hard by Gas Prices
Increase in surcharges may be the only way to keep trucking companies afloat with escalating gas prices
By Chelan David
When the price of fuel goes up, we all pay the price. For most people it’s an inconvenience. For those in the log trucking business, it can be debilitating.
“Truckers start feeling the pinch when fuel prices break the $1.40 a gallon barrier,” says Tracey Lutton, owner of Lutton Trucking based out of Aberdeen, Wash. And the last time regular retail gasoline on the West Coast was priced below that mark was in January of 2003, according to the Energy Information Administration, which provides official energy statistics from the U.S. Government.
This April, Lutton was paying $2.70 a gallon. With no relief in sight from the exorbitant gasoline costs, he and other truckers in the Pacific Northwest are adamant that area timber companies need to increase the surcharge they receive for fuel. “The surcharges are not adequate; we’re just getting by,” says Lutton.
Fuel surcharges vary amongst timber companies, and truckers like Lutton can haul for ten or more loggers. Lutton is getting anywhere from a 10 percent to a 23 percent surcharge, but says the current fuel prices require a minimum of a 24 percent surcharge.
In order to secure more favorable arrangements, he believes that the truckers’
best course of action is to actively negotiate with timber companies. “We need to be able to say ‘This is my price, this is what I want to haul for.’ Then the price can be presented to the timber company and they can say yes or no. Next session, the legislators are going to have a bill that is going to help us do that,” says Hutton.
Last August, frustrated by negotiations with timber companies, a number of truckers in Grays Harbor and Lewis County participated in a work stoppage. “We literally had to shut our trucks down to get timber companies to implement some fuel surcharges,” explains Lutton. “We had our back up against the wall and it was the end of the line for us. To make that point we had to have a complete shutdown.”
While Lutton says the work stoppage was effective and timber companies acquiesced to the truckers’ request, he is concerned about a future with few bargaining chips at his disposal.
“There is no real negotiating; it’s dictated to us by the timber company through the logger,” he says. “We’re told ‘this is what you’re going to get paid, and if you don’t like it, then go somewhere else.’ In our little logging industry you can’t just pack up and move somewhere else. Where else is there for us to go?”
Concerns for the Future
Such is the plight for logging truckers in the 21st century. Asmall, specialized industry, its members are composed primarily of seasoned drivers who have the trade in their blood.
Lutton has been hauling for over 30 years. One of his cherished possessions is an aging snapshot of himself standing on a road runner when he was only 5 years old. His father and brother were both log truckers. Now his children are involved with the enterprise — his daughter runs the office and his son hauls logs.
As much as he loves his family’s vocation, he worries that if operational costs can’t be contained the end result will be devastating to log trucking operators.
“A lot of nights I’m kept awake wondering what’s going to happen to us as a group and to myself personally,” says Lutton. “I’ve got family involved in this. I really worry about it.”
In the meantime, surging fuel prices will likely have indirect consequences on log trucking businesses. Safety is one concern. With extra money scarce, it’s easy to rationalize postponing the allocation of funds toward updating rigs.
“Safety is a big issue. It’s hard to put money back into your trucks when you have to pay a fuel bill that is outrageous,”points out Lutton.
Over the past three decades, Lutton has witnessed a number of changes, which he says have made it difficult for small truck operators to thrive. One of the biggest challenges was the deregulation that occurred in the 1980s. According to Lutton, when trucking was regulated by the state it was not uncommon for the set rate to go up. When deregulation took effect, the rate plummeted 10-15 percent.
Difficult to Find Qualified Drivers
In turn, lower revenues have made it difficult to attract qualified personnel. Lutton, who has 18 trucks and employs 22 people, finds it difficult to recruit new drivers. While his turnover rate is low, the stagnant wages, which are based on a percentage of a truck’s gross, do not entice new applicants.
“The drivers have not had a raise since the early ‘80s. The gross of my trucks now is comparable to what they were grossing back in 1980,” laments Lutton.
Also, the hours are long and the work demanding. “One of the problems is that guys don’t want to wake up at 1:00 in the morning and get home late in the afternoon. The amount of hours that it requires for us to make a living right now is more than most people want to do and I don’t blame them,” says Lutton.
Still, Lutton and other veteran log truckers soldier on. Undeterred by the prospect of inflated operational costs and static wages, they continue to transport timber. It’s in their blood and it’s what they do. They’re in it for the long haul.