Saturday, December 20, 2008


I got some good news this past week -- and some that wasn't so good. I also had some rare good luck and got a trip down to Mississippi, where it was in the 70's in some places, so I didn't have to freeze and could shut my truck down without doing so. I had gone down there in really nasty weather; a mix of snow and freezing rain -- slushy crap that turned a thirty-mile portion of Interstate 55 in Arkansas into a skating rink for cars and 18-wheelers. Fun! But my trailer stayed behind me, where it belongs, and I made it out of that mess. Further south, it was like taking a mid-winter trip to Hawaii, compared to what I'd been through.

It never lasts forever, though, because what goes south will inevitably move north once again. Back into the cold again. No more snow this time, but it dropped more than thirty degrees in a little more than two hundred miles as I moved north of Memphis again. I was by now down to running the engine while I slept, and only running it intermittently while sitting out the remainder of my break period. Run it enough to warm up the cab, then shut it down until I started shivering again. I was getting somewhat used to it, and could stand it longer, so long as it wasn't down into the teens, temperature-wise.

On the way back up to the area of our terminal, I got a fleet message that looked ominous, after a bit of thought. Instead of dropping our trip pack envelopes in the familiar yellow boxes at the truck stops, we were now to take them into the fuel desk and have our paperwork scanned directly to headquarters, in the same manner as owner/operators transmit their bills, receipts, and other important documents to their leasing companies, or customers. On the surface, this was obviously a cost-cutting measure, aimed at bypassing the UPS fees for the trip pack courier service they now provide, as well as bypassing the third party they hire to scan our paperwork and transmit it to Morton. More work for us drivers, but quicker pay as a result, as they get the payroll information in a couple of hours, as opposed to the next day (or a couple of days on the weekends). Only drawback is that now we have to keep and collect all that paperwork, and hold it, as per FMCSA regulations, for 45 days before we can toss it out. Well, hell -- maybe all that paper will help insulate my truck against the cold air, I thought. However, with loads and miles at a premium nowadays, I doubted that I would generate enough "insulation" to help much.

Deeper thought on that subject revealed a disturbing and scary reality, though. My company was getting deeper and deeper into financial doo-doo, if they had to resort to this. A friend jogged my mind on another, more important, reason they were doing this: they need that revenue as fast as they can get it, to pay their bills. Push is coming to shove with my trucking company. Other rumors I'd been hearing from other drivers came to mind. They'd had one CDL training school stop sending them their graduated trainees because of money they owed the school that hadn't been paid. Brand-new 386-model Peterbilt trucks were sitting on the lot at the Peterbilt shop in Morton (which exists solely for our fleet), not being put into service because they can't afford any new leases at this time. That same lot sitting full of older trucks whose leases have expired, which are not being replaced. The third shift in our shop being eliminated completely. All signs of a company in financial trouble. Not the only one that is, by any means, but this is my company, for whom I've driven for almost eleven years of my life. My job. My sole source of income. Now it was personal. A feeling of dread began to settle in my gut. My company isn't perfect -- no company is. Yes, I've had reason to cuss them, for things they've done in the past; the aggravations that go along with working for someone else for a living. We've all been through that, many times over. But this is all I have. This is it. As they go, so go I. This is serious stuff! My livelihood is now under threat of possible extinction and it is very, very disturbing, let me tell you all.

When I got back to the yard, after delivering my load nearby, I took my truck into our shop, to have my batteries checked out, since I'd had one no-start and almost had another one the week before. It was there that I got some good news. The batteries and charging system checked out okay and the mechanic told me he thought the combination of my cooler and CPAP running at the same time, with engine shut down for several hours in cold weather, had been draining them. He advised me to run the engine on my breaks (as I'd already started doing anyway) and that my scheme of running it intermittently when waiting for extended periods was a good idea. Great! There was "shop recommendation" to run my motor and not freeze my buns off in the cold. When I went to see Safety, to get my new fuel permit, I asked an old-timer over there, whom I know well, about it. He agreed with the shop. Just use common sense, he told me, and shut it off as much as you can, to keep the idle as low as possible. Nobody expects you to freeze to death. That much was a huge relief.

But that was all overshadowed by the signs of my company in trouble. The shop office was practically empty. Only one clerk, sitting at one desk in there, when there had been three of them before. The dayshift crew in our shop looked like a skeleton crew, compared to the past. The mechanic who worked on my truck was formerly the head of the new truck get-ready department and was the absolute whiz on the Qualcomm satellite units in our tractors. Now, with few, if any, new trucks going into service, they moved him to the main shop, after laying off several mechanics on both remaining shifts. I learned that the company has laid off more than two hundred drivers, thus explaining why the tractor lot is sitting full of unassigned trucks. The trailer lot has been full, the last few times I've been up there, indicating the lack of loads to be had. Only ten newbie drivers joined us this week; an all-time low, for an orientation grad class. They just hire enough newbies now to replace enough of the ones who inevitably quit, to keep our driver force at a pre-determined level. I heard there were many more trained newbies sitting at home, awaiting their truck assignments if business should pick back up in the near future. I also heard that third shift dispatch *may* get the axe next and not to be surprised if there's another shuffle in dispatch after the first of the year as a result. If that happens, it will leave drivers cut off, from midnight until seven A.M. the following morning.

Caterpillar, our biggest customer, has fallen on very hard times of late, with cutbacks and layoffs at almost every plant. The big tractor facility in East Peoria is giving workers a "mini-layoff" over the holidays, similar to what the Big Three automakers are doing in Detroit. As goes Cat, so goes Star, because we are one of the main OTR carriers for their parts and material supply chain. I waited almost all day for the load I brought home and it wasn't a Caterpillar load, which is almost always the norm, when drivers visit our yard. I deliver it Monday, at a USDOE facility in nearby Oak Ridge, TN. After that, this close to Christmas, I don't know what to expect. I might get sent back home for the holiday. The prospect looms that many of our drivers, myself included, might see a "mini-layoff" of our own over the holidays, completely unpaid. This, of course, has me worried; as I've previously mentioned, my miles have fallen so low lately that I can barely pay my bills, and I'm already a month behind on one auto loan payment. Add to that the worry that I may not have a job at all, in the near future, and it's definitely not something that helps you get to sleep at night. My already grim situation is getting steadily grimmer.

And, if the worst should happen and my company goes under? What then? Well, there's still some room for hope there. The best I can hope for is that a larger company, with more operating capital and a larger customer base will buy us out. There's plenty of reason to think that might happen, too, as there are likely many other companies that would like to take over our contract with Caterpillar. These hard times won't last forever; they never do. Eventually the economy will pull back out of the mess it's currently in and things will resume more or less as normal again. It's just a question of how long this will continue and how well people can survive it.

If you're religious at all, pray along with me. I sure am.

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