As truck drivers rush to deliver essential goods during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, US shippers are taking advantage of extended driver hours to speed replenishment. They’re putting more people on docks, ensuring they’ve purchasing the right amount of goods, and even creating forms to help truckers hauling their loads verify they and their shipments are exempt from US hours-of-service (HOS) rules.
“In just the last 24 hours, we’ve had a lot of calls from shippers asking how they can operate with the exemption,” Eric Lien, executive vice president of strategic partners at Arrive Logistics, said Wednesday. Lien deals directly with Arrive’s shipper customers. “The shippers were concerned about how drivers would embrace working outside normal hours.”
The first-ever nationwide HOS exemption is meant to put some flexibility back into a US transportation network that is limited by the daily clock governing trucker working hours, which allow 11 hours of daily driving time and 14 hours of on-duty time. The exemption allows truckers to exceed those limits, as long as they take a 10-hour break afterward.
Drivers are apparently using the HOS exemption, but there’s no way to publicly track how many are working longer hours to get essential goods to destinations. Truckers are traveling faster through typically congested urban areas, however, thanks to a reduction in everyday commuter traffic, according to a new report from the American Transportation Research Institute.
Many shippers, Lien said, are thinking outside the box and embracing responsibility for ensuring drivers working under the exemption can make deliveries. “We’ve seen some of our largest food and beverage accounts issue formal memos to truck drivers with their shipment paperwork notifying anyone who stops the drivers that they are covered by the exemption.”
That’s a relief to drivers wondering how they would demonstrate they were exempt, absent a certificate from the government, if their hours of service were checked by state or local authorities. The exemption also allows truck drivers to deliver goods within restricted areas under a shelter-in-place-style lockdown imposed by state or local governments.
“This kind of leadership from the shipper community is really encouraging to see,” Lien said. Some shippers he’s spoken with are also stepping up basic “shipper-of-choice” driver-friendly practices they introduced in 2018, when the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate and higher freight demand combined to disrupt delivery times and constrict truck capacity.
“We’ve talked with shippers that are picking up amenities drivers now can’t get at truck stops — vending machines, bottled water, sanitizer,” Lien said. But shippers and consignees are also asking drivers, and other visitors, to verify that they haven’t traveled to other countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic or had flu-like symptoms within the last 14 days.
The transportation crisis caused by COVID-19 requires shippers to do more than see to driver needs, however. “With the HOS exemption, you’ve got an opportunity to ship products outside the traditional hours, a relief from capacity constraints,” Lien said. “But to leverage that opportunity you’ve got to coordinate across the supply chain, especially on the receiving end.”
That means tighter coordination between procurement, distribution, and receiving. “Purchasing and distribution often operate in two different worlds,” Lien said. “But you need to ensure you not only procure the amount needed for replenishment, but that you have the crew you need on the docks and the yard space to handle higher volumes.” The same is true at customer sites.
“Best-in-class shippers are trying to get ahead of these problems, working hard to keep their base of carriers intact,” he said. When the pandemic eventually wanes and businesses start shipping higher volumes again, “they don’t want to find themselves with a glut of carriers that they don’t have a relationship with. To hold onto their own guys, they’ve got to be flexible.”
John Janson, global logistics director at custom apparel shipper SanMar, is working on the kind of supply chain coordination Lien describes, but it’s not easy. A big question is how to maintain communications. “Everybody from headquarters is working from home. Different parts of our company are doing different things,” Janson said. “And right in the middle of this, it’s contracting season.”
When it comes to working with truck drivers, “we’re following the policies laid down by the [motor] carriers,” Janson said. “Each of our major carriers has published what they want customers to do when drivers show up. If they want us to keep the six-foot rule, we’ll accommodate them.” The goal, he said, is to keep trucks and cargo moving.
“What’s really been impressive is how every one of our carriers is stepping up with their contingency plans and letting us know how they will affect us,” Janson said. “I’ve always said building strong relationships will get us through. That’s really coming to fruition right now.” Those relationships will be just as important when COVID-19 cases wane and the economy revives.
At that point, “capacity will have to shift again and that will create disruption,” Lien said. “That transition will come at a cost, and it just depends on how long some of these industries are down. I don’t think all industries are going to start up immediately. It’s not like everybody’s going to be out there buying cars. People will probably continue with some degree of frugality.”
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