Long waiting and unloading times are becoming more frequent at shipping and receiving sites, creating backups at gates and docks and hampering delivery of essential items during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, motor carriers and logistics executives say.
While difficult to quantify, truck drivers and logistics and carrier executives have said detention is worsening at some customers and consignees. That’s partly because of labor shortages and partly because of visitor and employee temperature checks, COVID-19 forms, and other steps companies are taking to safeguard their workplaces and employees during the pandemic.
Trucking capacity is readily available, and essential goods may be available, but the dock, if not fully staffed, can become a major logistics bottleneck. Even if a receiver or shipper is fully staffed, the dock can still be a bottleneck when unusually high volumes are in motion. These congestion points demand better supply chain coordination, logistics executives said.
“The time spent or wasted at customers is killing us,” one truck driver told JOC.com. “If I drive two hours to pick up a load, wait five hours to get a dock assignment, and then wait four hours to get loaded, I have three hours left in my work day before I have to shut down for 10 hours.” And drivers may not be reimbursed for income lost in that time, the driver said in an email.
“We are seeing a little bit more [detention] because volumes are increasing with certain shippers, and we’re seeing more wait time on the pickup and delivery side,” Eric Fuller, CEO of truckload carrier US Xpress Enterprises, said. “That’s creating frustration. We’re trying to see if we can schedule pickup and delivery during off-hours or if the vendors can stay open later.”
Shippers and trucking companies need to communicate and collaborate more closely to reduce unnecessary detention — and that communication includes letting carriers know whether there will be enough people on a dock to load or unload a truck, said Eric Lien, executive vice president for strategic partnerships at third-party logistics provider (3PL) Arrive Logistics.
Thanks to loosened restrictions governing truck driver work hours, “we’ve got an opportunity to replenish goods faster than we ever have, but to leverage that we have to coordinate downstream across our supply chain, especially on the receiving end,” Lien said. “That means ensuring on the receiving end that you have crew and yard space to handle the volume.”
A costly, long-running problem
Excessive detention of drivers by shippers or receivers has been an issue for years, drawing attention from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on several occasions, but it exploded in 2018 as freight demand rose and truck capacity tightened. Although reducing detention is a goal of “shipper of choice” programs, there are reports detention has increased.
“Shippers and receivers do not seem to be fully aware of, or overly concerned by, the costs incurred by carriers and drivers while waiting,” the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) said in a study released last September. Following a truck driver survey, ATRI said delays of six hours or more increased 27.4 percent from 2014 through 2018.
In a report released in January 2018, the Department of Transportation Officer of the Inspector General (OIG) found detention time may reduce annual earnings for truck drivers by $1,281 to $1,534 per year, although some of that loss may be offset by detention fees paid by shippers to carriers. The total cost of detention to the trucking sector tops $1 billion a year, the OIG said.
Most delays, shippers and truckers say, are caused by inefficient processes, or poor training and supervision on the dock. But detention also can be a way for some businesses to “hoard” supply chain time, giving their operations more flexibility, by inconveniencing truck drivers and in effect stealing driving time from other shippers served by that driver and trucking company.
The electronic logging device (ELD) mandate was supposed to help reduce detention, and for some trucking companies, it has. But on a broader scale, data sets have yet to be developed to provide industry-wide visibility into detention time, said David Correll, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics.
Correll is working on a truck driver study for MIT’s FreightLab that aims to better understand and measure the utilization of driver time, using data from ELDs. “Much of the ELD data that I’ve seen is exactly the driver’s hours of service, nothing more. So it’s as boring as ‘date and time spent driving.’ It has to be merged with other sets of data to create value, and that’s hard.”
The pandemic extends delays
There are three pandemic-related factors adding to delays and detention: 1) high demand for some essential goods is causing long backups and congestion; 2) shippers and receivers are screening visitors for COVID-19; and 3) fewer dock and warehouse workers are available because of the pandemic. Add lack of communication along the supply chain to the list.
Shippers of goods in high demand, with toilet paper a prime example, often have long lines of trucks waiting at their gates. As employees get sick, or stay home to avoid COVID-19, or are absent to care for children or family members, docks and warehouses may have fewer workers to deal with those waiting trucks to keep the higher-than-normal volumes of goods moving.
Just as they need more workers, they find they have fewer. A JOC.com audience survey found securing labor, along with ensuring disinfection best practices, was the top concern, cited by 22 percent of respondents. The status of ports and lack of ocean capacity ranked second and third in the survey of top concerns, followed by overall supply chain fluidity and trucking capacity.
“We’re seeing bottlenecks happening more in grocery and big-box retail, where the influx of goods may be taxing the ability of companies to process orders,” said Geoffrey Muessig, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier Pitt Ohio Transportation Group. “They’ve got a surge, but they may not have the workforce to handle it.”
Many shippers and receivers now also require truck drivers to sign forms affirming they have not been exposed to COVID-19, or had any of symptoms of the virus (which does not mean they are not carrying the virus). Many companies are taking the temperatures of drivers and other visitors. Pitt Ohio requires a temperature check when employees arrive at work.
“People are being careful, and that means pickups and deliveries are slower,” said Charles “Chuck” Clowdis, Jr., managing director of Trans-Logistics Group. “It even takes more time for employees to get into buildings where they’re still going to work.” He mentioned a meat-packing company where employees line up each morning to be screened and get fresh masks.
Some delays may be unavoidable in the pandemic, but lack of communication along the supply chain exacerbates the problem. “We’ll have a customer tell us they need a shipment to be delivered next-day, and then the receiver tells us we can’t get a delivery appointment for a week,” a logistics executive who did not want to be identified told JOC.com.
Grocery companies, in particular, are handling order volumes that may be two, three, or four times the amount they would ordinarily handle. They can’t simply add more dock doors and gates or even find large numbers of additional workers. Letting trucking and logistics partners know exactly what resources will be available when they deliver is critical, Arrive’s Lien said.
“There needs to be coordination,” he said. “We need to ensure that from purchasing to physical distribution we don’t do things that create gridlock downstream. The last thing we want is for drivers to incur added costs, expenses, and detention. The damage is in keeping the driver locked up and not able to proceed to the next load and keep the economy running.”