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Opinion | How Life as a Trucker Devolved Into a Dystopian Nightmare

For decades, truckers have quit at alarming rates, leading to a chronic shortage. The turnover rate was at a staggering 91 percent in 2019, which means that for every 100 people who signed up to drive, 91 walked out the door. Plenty of people have the commercial driver’s licenses needed to operate trucks, said Michael Belzer, a Wayne State University economist who has studied the industry for 30 years. “None of them will work for these wages,” he added. Studies even show that their pay, when adjusted for inflation, has declined markedly since the 1970s.

It wasn’t always like this, said Jerry Fritts, a retired long-haul trucker from Memphis who started full-time in the field in 1966. Trucking used to be a good job, with union representation, decent pay and benefits, and normal hours.

“There used to be only three ways that you got a trucking job,” he told me. “Someone retired, was killed on the job, or died.” Few quit. I asked Mr. Fritts how he landed his position at a national trucking firm and he told me that he simply received a call one day in 1969 from someone who told him, “Scotty just got killed.”

Before deregulation during the Carter administration, trucking was an industry with high union representation. But fears of inflation pushed the government to allow less regulated, nonunionized firms to compete with the unionized common carriers. That effectively took the bottom out of the labor market, and as companies raced to offer the lowest rates to customers, wages were squeezed. Working conditions and pay cratered, and truckers fled.

To compensate for low wages, some truckers now work dangerously long hours, the average trucker well over 60 hours a week. Many truckers report working 100 hours or more each week. This is in part because truckers are not actually paid for all the time they spend working. They’re almost always paid by the mile.

So if Mr. Knope were to show up to, say, a pet food warehouse, exhausted from a day of driving, looking to unload quickly, find something to eat and catch some sleep, the warehouse staff might tell him there wasn’t anyone available to unload his truck for six hours, and he would be forced to wait, lonely in his truck, paid for only part of the time he spent waiting. (Other trucking companies might not compensate their drivers at all.)

Working more, and driving more, leads to endemic exhaustion, a problem so well known that companies deploy a bevy of “fatigue management” technologies and automated collision avoidance systems, Karen Levy, a sociologist at Cornell, told me. These tools monitor the drivers with that bevy of cameras and sensors.

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