Trucking industry faces longer layovers

Don't be fooled by Odell Haggerty's serene gaze and placid hazel eyes. The past month has been awful for the long-distance truck driver from Texas.

Haggerty earns 36 cents a mile, but when he isn't driving his company's big rig - when he's laid over awaiting a new load - he doesn't get a dime. And lately, with the recession hammering freight-haulers, he's seen far too much of random truck stops and not enough of the open road.

"I didn't get the pleasure of being in the broke house - I was under it," he said with a grim laugh Wednesday over breakfast at a truck stop in Jessup. "Freight was real slow. I was sitting a lot."

The 43-year-old Haggerty, a giant of a man, is still sitting a lot, like truckers from coast to coast. Last month the American trucking sector hauled 12 percent less tonnage than in March 2008. It was the second-worst year-to-year decrease since the recession began in late 2007. And there is no sign this month will mark a turnaround.

"I still don't think we're at bottom," said Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Associations in Arlington, Va.

The situation in Maryland is bleak. "The industry here is down just as it is nationally," said Louis Campion of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. The only bright spot he can find is that there have been fewer bankruptcies this year among U.S. trucking firms with five or more trucks : 500-some in the first three months of the year, compared with 935 in the first quarter last year.

For many long-haul drivers, the recession has meant unemployment. So far, 129,000 trucking jobs have been lost nationally, or around 10 percent of average employment in the industry, Costello said.

By that measure Haggerty is fortunate. He still drives for Gulf Coast Transport of Sunnyvale, Texas. But it's hard for him not to ponder how much better it was a couple years ago. Back then, he earned $75,000 a year and had scant downtime since his company often gave him his next stop before he even reached a destination.

"Now," he said, "once you unload you might sit a day, a day and a half, possibly two days. It's really gotten sad. You learn to have patience. If you don't have patience, it will drive you up the wall."

His company does not want him to drive more than 80 miles with an empty truck - "deadhead," in the lingo - because it wastes fuel. (While the drop in diesel prices is good for his employer, as a company driver he does not pay for fuel or maintenance.)

To pass time the 6-foot-6 Haggerty watches television in the sleeper compartment of his Peterbilt rig or talks to his wife, Michelle, and their kids in Dallas. He does not socialize much with truckers. "I don't care to hear the whinin' and cryin'. My day is already jacked up. Why do I want to hear their crying?"

By now his breakfast had arrived, and he tucked into his New York strip steak with a side of hash browns slathered in sausage gravy. His waitress, Valerie Jackson, said she has never seen such long layovers in her 10 years at the Country Pride restaurant in the TravelCenters of America stop.

"They'll be here for like five days, a week," she said. "I see them every day. I say, 'You here again?' " Their reply: "Waiting on a load."

Wednesday was good for Haggerty. Having just pulled into town the night before, he dropped off Styrofoam cups and plates at a Giant Food distribution hub in Jessup at 1 p.m. Just three hours later he was due in Hunt Valley to pick up spices at McCormick & Co. before heading south to Texas.

"Every once in a while you get lucky," he said. But recent layovers in Kentucky and New York dragged on for two or three days. Not only does he not get paid, but he has to fork over money for meals.

Thank goodness for his wife's job as a 911 dispatcher. "If it weren't for her working when I had those bad weeks..." His voice trailed off. "I don't want to think what would happen. It wouldn't be good."

Haggerty is philosophical. He has friends with their own trucks. Some have let the bank take back their rigs; those without debt have parked their trucks to wait out the recession.

"In due time, it'll all get worked out," he said, finishing the last of his steak. Not that he expects that to happen any time soon.