Sunday, February 25, 2018

Trying to clean out my 2017 folders. Or- man-0-man I am lazy!

I've been wanting to post this since last Fall. I have agonized over this, trying to figure out the best way to present this story. I've written three versions. One that gives names, dates, times. One that sanitizes the whole story and then this one, a good version that leaves out the details I could possibly get sued over, and tells a broader story of the human side of trucking. So here it is, a Hurricane Irma story a few months late: 

Hurricane Irma was barreling towards Florida. She had changed course many times, but now aiming at a more central track. Residents were scurrying to get ready, but lumber to board up windows was in short supply, and some stores had none. Emergency supplies were steaming towards Irma’s target, trying to get there so the residents could secure their properties. 

One jinxed driver got to his destination, a Home Depot, late. The delay was attributed to a seven-hour tire breakdown in South Carolina. When he arrived, in Zephyrhills Florida, the Home Depot was closed, and not going to reopen until after the Irma exited the area. Upon calling in, the driver was told to take the load to Atlanta Georgia. Worn out, his nerves frazzled, he decided to take a nap. His restless slumber was interrupted by a law officer banging on the truck’s door. Upon hearing the driver’s intentions, the cop would not let him leave the area citing the need for the trucker’s load. By this time, panicked residents started arriving in the wee hours of the morning to see if the store was open. Upon hearing their plights, the driver took it upon himself to give away the entire load of plywood. The driver was fired for his generosity, and another Internet drama unfolded. 

At least that’s how the story was reported. I have sat in both the driver’s seat and in the office chair, and the story, as reported, has so many holes and is as moldy as month old Swiss Cheese. If you are not lactose intolerant, or like to live on the edge with sketchy dairy products, let’s attack this together.
First, it’s unclear where the load of plywood was coming from. I am assuming it was dispatched from somewhere in the Northeast, because he broke down in South Carolina, and that is not in a direct path to Atlanta GA. Next, seven hours for a breakdown for a blown tire seems excessive, giving that the route he was on most likely was US Route 95. I make this assumption because he wasn’t traveling from, say, Montana. Sometimes drivers go out of their way to eat at their favorite diner, sometimes to enjoy a delicious meatloaf, or in extreme cases, the hired help. This was not that far out of the way, especially with a load that was deemed an emergency. 

The driver did not work for Home Depot, he drove for a third-party freight company. A third-party freight company is a company who is hired to deliver the goods from one place to another, usually with dedicated trucks assigned just to that company, in this case Home Depot. Most times the carrier either picks up the freight at a company owned warehouse, or possibly in this case, the plywood’s manufacturer. Technically, the plywood wasn’t even the carrier’s load to give away, it was Home Depot’s lumber. I’ve worked as both a driver and a manager for a third-party carrier, so take it from one who had to sweat out many reconciliation meetings, the owner of the freight wins the war every time. 

Given all the available evidence, I have many questions. What was the length of the driver’s tenure? In other words, new hires sometimes do not know all the nuances of a company’s policies. Was the driver’s dispatcher armed with all of the knowledge of the breakdown? Was every person involved at the freight company aware of the store’s closing time? It seems to me, this was THE key issue with this whole problem. 

I’m going to wax poetic here for a paragraph. I worked in the transportation office of a huge pizza chain, and coined a term: BE ANAL! In our case it meant just don’t rely on voicemails. If there was an issue, no matter how small, it meant talking to someone who is directly responsible. This especially holds true when it came to changing a driver’s schedule. Let’s face it, some truck drivers LOVE to whine, and most companies have their very own whine cellar. My belief was/is always, if you treat the drivers like humans and EXPLAIN the problems, even asking their opinions on possible solutions, operations run much more smoothly. But back to the plywood issue. 

Whoever was manning the phones at the driver’s employer, should have been applying pressure to the tire vendor, keeping both the store and the driver in the loop. When it appeared that the driver might not make the store in time, making the decision AT THAT TIME to route the truck to Atlanta would have been smart. It’s a six-and-a-half-hour drive, and 480 miles from Zephyrhills to Atlanta. Driving from South Carolina to “possibly” deliver a load seems like an insane wild goose chase, and a waste of precious dollars in a fuel budget.

Another story! I once worked as a milk delivery driver. One Saturday, IN JULY, I had a school lunch order delivery. When questioned, my boss told me to go deliver the milk anyway. I had been doing this route for two years, and this order seemed odd, since it was a fresh invoice, but the order was dated sometime in April. I drove out of my way, burned an extra 30 gallons of fuel, only to find a locked school with my face looking in every window for signs of life. It turns out, it was a computer glitch, and an April order never was purged from the system. My point is, I have been on the receiving ends of countless wild goose chases. 

Zephyrhills Florida will be forever grateful to this driver, but I believe the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of someone in freight company’s management team. Communication is the key to any successful business, but in trucking it is very crucial. A truck gets less than 10 miles-per-gallon and tires are on the north side of $500 each, so per mile costs are astronomical. I’m sure Home Depot did not want their employees in peril, so closing the store made sense. The driver giving away the load has its own set of circumstances, as technically it falls under the category of cargo theft. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that there is not one mechanism in place to recoup the money lost on this load. The freight company will swallow the cost, to appease their customer. Firing the driver might have made the phone call to the customer, in this case The Home Depot, more pleasant, but in the end the driver came off as a hero. A GoFundMe page suggests this evidence also. Home Depot’s reputation will be undeservingly tarnished, due to all the negative press, and trucking will remain as confusing as ever.

As this case unfolds, the freight carrier issued a statement and judging by the comments, opinion is split and emotions are passionate on both sides. The driver found employment elsewhere, and everything turned out for the better, except a company still has to pay for the load.

As a footnote, a frustrating rant. I’ve worked at these office jobs usually promoted from a driver position. Due to a knee replacement, I cannot drive anymore, and feel a little left out, as transportation management positions require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. When asked about education on an online employment application, I get the bum’s rush when I get to that point. The virtual hearty handshake and a polite “no thanks” on the screen returns every time as a ghost of education past. So it’s frustrating to me trying to find a new career at almost 60 years of age.

I started this piece before Maria almost wiped Puerto Rico off the map. My frustrations with the industry and the need for “anal” people in the management offices has now reached a crucial point in the rebuilding of Houston, most of Florida and now Puerto Rico. There is no place for sloppiness both in the truck’s cab and the office. Getting freight to an island is challenging enough, let alone mostly EVERYTHING to rebuild. All three places are going to take years to get back to normal, and who knows what wrath Mother Nature might throw at these areas while the rebuilding process takes place. Hire good people with good skills would be my advice for southern based freight companies.

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