If you’re a regular listener/reader, you’ll know that I recently made a job change. For this episode, I thought about just talking about my new Less-Than-Load (LTL) job, but instead I’ve decided to tell you about the new job while also comparing it to my old Over-The-Road (OTR) job. So let’s get to it.
But first, let’s define what LTL and OTR means so all the newbies and non-truckers can follow along.
OTR stands for Over-The-Road. This type of trucking is typically (but not always) freight picked up at one or two customers at most and delivered to one or two receivers. There are OTR carriers that deal with multiple pickups or stops on one trailer, but the vast majority of large national trucking companies like JB Hunt, Prime, and US Xpress, pick up a load at one location and deliver it to a single location about 99% of the time. Also, unless you’re on some sort of dedicated account, you’re probably not running the same routes every day. Pretty straightforward really.
LTL stands for Less-Than-Load (or Truckload), meaning they pick up freight from lots of different customers throughout the day who have “less than a full load.” Each customer might only have one pallet, tote, tub, barrel, or crate to ship. All that freight is collected by local drivers who bring it back to local terminals where it is sorted based on which direction it is headed. From there it will keep moving to other terminals and branching out until it reaches it’s final destination.
Think of LTL like a tree.
There are many roots (shipping customers) on a tree. All those roots converge into the tree trunk.
The tree trunk is the local LTL terminal where all the day’s freight is collected. Freight is then sorted according to the direction of it’s destination and loaded onto many trailers. From there, each branch (or load) forks off in a different direction until you finally get to the leaf (the freight’s final destination in this weird analogy).
UPS and Fedex are probably the LTL carriers you’re most familiar with. They would have many more branches than most LTL carriers because they are often delivering to individual homes, whereas companies like YRC and Old Dominion are doing more business-to-business freight, meaning there are less branches before it reaches it’s final destination.
I hope I didn’t confuse you with that analogy so much that you leaf this blog post. Sorry, I realize that’s an inexcusably lame pun, but I’m cheesy enough that I just couldn’t pass it up.
Here’s the nitty-gritty of how LTL driving works.
Freight is picked up by many city drivers throughout the day. One local driver might deliver and pick up freight from 10 or more different customers each day. Some terminals have dozens of local drivers that are each doing that. They then bring it back to their local terminal where either they or a dock worker separates it and loads it onto outbound trailers.
Then the line-haul drivers like me come in and take it to it’s final destination or some point along the way toward it’s final destination. If a few pallets of freight needs to be kicked off (unloaded) at another terminal along the way, either the driver will do it or a dock worker will.
For instance, I might be pulling a trailer from Joplin that has freight going to Des Moines, Chicago, and Minneapolis (all north of Joplin). Des Moines is the place where this route splits. From there, some of it is staying in Iowa, some is going on north to Minneapolis, and the rest needs to get moving eastbound and down towards Chicago.
If there’s only a few pallets of Des Moines and Chicago freight, they may have me kick off that freight in Des Moines and keep on trucking up to Minnesota. But if most of the freight is staying in Des Moines, they will likely have me drop the trailer there and head somewhere else if I still have driving hours. As I’m moving on, the Des Moines dock workers are splitting that Chicago and Minneapolis freight onto the appropriate trailers, which will be picked up later by other line-haul drivers.
Sometimes this routing has already been planned in advance, but sometimes it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision based on what has come into Des Moines recently. Basically, it boils down to us line-haul drivers doing whatever dispatch tells us to do.
Okay, now that has been explained, let me issue a disclaimer:
My only experience working LTL is with this new job, so please keep in mind that I’m only speaking from my limited experience I’ve gained in the first month or so. Not all LTL carriers are alike, so please take my thoughts on this subject with a grain of salt and always do your own research before you make any job switch.
The job transition
I have to say that the job transition wasn’t as smooth as I’d hoped. Things just seemed confused throughout. When I asked why things were so messed up, I was told this company had just set up a new hiring process. Okay, I’ll give them that. But that still didn’t make it any easier.
For example, there was such a long interval between my initial drug screen and my start date, that I had to go back in to do another drug screen. Although I guess part of that falls on my old job still needing me to be out a minimum of two weeks.
Let me take a second here to give a shout out to my old employer. Since my new company had called them early on, they knew I was in the running for a new job. They routed me to headquarters where I sat down with my dispatcher and her boss. When they heard my perspective new job involved similar pay and considerably more home time, instead of coping an attitude, they wished me the best and told me I always had a job there if it didn’t work out. They also promised to work with me to get me home whenever I needed throughout the hiring process. They held up their promise until the end, so kudos to them.
On my first home time since I was found out, I did the drug screen and the physical fitness test, which I’m happy to say I passed with flying colors. Then I went back out for three more weeks while the new company processed the test results and scheduled my road test.
After the road test, I went back out for my final three weeks. I could’ve made it two weeks, but the new employer wasn’t in any particular rush and it just so happened The Evil Overlord was going to be traveling to the city where I needed to drop off my truck. How’s that for luck?
My first week on the job
Again, my first week started with confusion. I had been told to show up for work Monday night, March 4. I was told I’d be riding with a driver to St. Louis and back all week, but about two hours before I was scheduled to head out, I got a call saying that plans had changed and I’d now be riding with a guy to Kansas City and back every night for the first week.
The bad thing was that I was getting paid for all miles, whether I was driving or my mentor (trainer) was. St. Louis and back is 604 miles round trip, while KC and back is only 310. That’s a tad more than half the miles I was expecting. Yucky.
Even worse, the dispatcher called me back just an hour before I was due at work to warn me to wear warm clothes because I’d be working the outside dock for a couple of hours. Well, I didn’t have time to find my heavy coveralls, so I threw on some long johns and my coat, dug out my insulated boots, and scrambled to find some heavy gloves and a beanie.
We got to KC about 12:30 AM where it was a balmy 12 degrees with a wind chill of about 2 degrees. By the end of the two hours dock work, I couldn’t feel my feet. They thawed out about the time we got home three hours later.
I’m convinced that first night was the cause of the sickness that haunted me for the next three weeks. Not only was this wussy OTR trucker not accustomed to working in the cold every night, but I also wasn’t used to being around other people in tight quarters like our driver’s room. I found out later that all the other drivers at our terminal had been passing trucker cooties around for a while. And of course, I had shaken the hands of every single one of them the first night as I was introduced to everyone.
So there’s the first big difference I noticed between OTR trucking and LTL trucking; the trucker cooties.
As an OTR trucker, I didn’t talk to anyone face-to-face regularly. I was in my truck most of the day; a place where I came into contact with only my own cooties.
I think of my new situation kind of like a 3rd grade class. When one person gets sick, everyone gets sick. Even worse, think what it would be like if that 3rd grade class interacted every day with other 3rd graders from all across the USA. That’s what you’re dealing with in LTL.
We all touch the same computer keys to sign in and out. We handle the same pieces of paper to punch in/out on the time clock. We all hang out in a driver’s room while we wait on our loads. We handle a different handheld ELD each day that some other driver has probably been sneezing on without covering his mouth. We all cram into a shuttle van to go to the hotel every morning. And perhaps worst of all, we all share trucks where truckers are spreading their cooties over every surface they touch.
I mentioned in the last podcast, TD136: The emotions of changing truck driving jobs, that we have assigned trucks at my LTL job… sort of. Well, that was accurate. When we come back to work each night, we get the same truck. But that doesn’t mean it sits there unused all day.
When I’m in bed at the hotel, some city worker is usually driving it around to make deliveries. So what I’m saying is that if you want to be a millionaire when you retire, you should be buying lots of stock in Lysol disinfecting wipes, cuz I’m stocking up on ‘em big time.
Now I do realize that a lot of this trucker cootie stuff is true about OTR truckers too, but not to the same extent in my opinion. My OTR truck was mine. The only time anyone else was in it was for maintenance. I used my own writing pen whenever possible and I’m still going to do that. But I can’t wipe down every door handle to the driver’s room and shuttle van, nor can I put on rubber gloves to handle every log in/out sheet. Well I could, but people already think I’m weird as it is.
I’ve always had a strong immune system, but I think it’s just out of practice from 21 years of OTR trucking. So I’m guessing I’ll be suffering with more bouts of sickness until get my body gets used to fighting off trucker cooties again. Heck, I even got food poisoning in my first full week of solo driving with them. Not a fun trip. Let’s just say that my liquid assets were expeditiously exporting from all ports. Yeah.
Speaking of other drivers, that’s another thing that’s different between OTR and LTL driving; the driver relationships.
I worked for my former employer for a total of 13 years. I knew a handful of office employees and a few big wigs by name, but oddly enough, I can’t recall the first names of even two of my fellow company drivers. We were just rarely in the same place at the same time. Not so with LTL.
Since we’re all home over the weekend, most of us are coming back to work at the same time on Monday. Not only do drivers based in the same terminal chat in the driver’s room before we head out, but we also often talk on the phone.
I have truly never experienced a driving job like this. Never have I worked a job where so many drivers were willing to help each other. There is a lot to learn coming from OTR trucking to LTL trucking and it’s hard to keep it all straight in my tiny little Brussels sprout-sized brain. Good Lord, why would I use that horrific vegetable as an example? They taste like tiny little dirty cabbages! Yuck!
Here are just a few of the questions I’ve asked multiple times (hey – it’s a lot to take in!):
- When can I claim layover pay and how do I figure it?
- How much time do I claim for drop/hooking?
- How do I make sure I get paid for breakdown?
- What’s the best way to get your truck serviced without someone stealing your assigned truck?
- Where do I park and check-in when I get to a terminal I’ve never been to?
- Is that little state highway okay to run between these two terminals?
- Where do I put this freight I was told to unload?
- How do I get to the hotel; bobtail, taxi, or shuttle van (the answer of which depends on where and when you arrive)?
- How does this job bidding thing work?
- And what the heck is “notching” a driver?
Just to get it out of the way, let me try to explain notching to you. I think “notching” is a union thing, but it could also be non-union LTL for all I know. Remember my disclaimer.
With OTR, you’re often preplanned on loads, and that doesn’t always translate to first come, first served. But in LTL, the first driver to their destination gets the next best outbound load.
But the union is all about seniority too. That means it’s important that you don’t screw someone with more seniority by leaving earlier (notching) than they do if you’re both headed to the same place.
So for instance, I’m the low man at my home terminal until some poor sap is hired on behind me. So if the driver right above me and I are both heading to Nashville and we’re both set to depart at the same time, I need to make sure I don’t punch out (notch) and leave before he does. That puts him in a position to arrive first and get the better load back out.
Part of me thinks that sounds fair, but another side of brain says that if I’m eager enough to leave out a bit early, then I should be able to do that. But then again, the union has been doing it this way for years, and frankly, I value my kneecaps. 😉
But once we’re both out on the road, all bets are off. If he’s the type of driver that likes to stop and get coffee every couple of hours or pull off for an hour-long nap, then that’s his problem if I beat him to Nashville. You snooze, you lose, buddy.
So back to all my questions…
As you know, I’m a naturally-inquisitive guy, but even I’ve asked a heck-of-a-lot more questions than normal within the last month or so. God bless Ronnie (my mentor) for being willing to answer the constant barrage during my first week. I feel sorry for him, but he was a real trooper.
For the record, getting less miles (and money) in my first week and going with Ronnie to KC for dock work proved to be a lot more useful than riding back and forth to St. Louis for a turn-and-burn.
I got some experience on a forklift (it’d been about 25 years since I’d been on one), but more importantly I learned how to read the freight bills to figure out where freight was moving and how much of it there was.
I also got some basics on how to load such mismatched freight (no such thing as 22 pallets of identical freight in the LTL world) to reduce damage and maximize the space available. I still have a lot to learn in that department, but that one week of low-paying dock training gave me a leg up on other new drivers I’ve talked to.
Back to this driver relationship thing…
That first night at work, I got the phone numbers of four or five of our drivers and I’ve since added a handful more to my Contacts app. Everyone says to call if I have any questions. I have… many times. If I can’t reach one guy, there’s always another driver to call on. That’s largely because everyone is driving at night. I’ve even got phone numbers from guys who drive out of other terminals!
When I was driving back from orientation in Indianapolis (yes, I drove a truck to orientation the second week – first time that’s ever happened), I had to stop and kick off some freight in St. Louis before I could head home. This would be my first time doing it without Ronnie’s help.
I grabbed a forklift and headed out. I walked up to a guy on the dock and said, “Hey man, I’m new. I think I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know whether to put the freight on the dock or in one of the outbound trailers.” He just said, “You read the bills and I’ll move the freight.” Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve always had drivers willing to help when I ask. Very cool.
Driving at night is another huge difference between OTR and LTL.
When I was an OTR driver, I did my share of overnight driving. That’s actually one of the things I like about OTR; the variety of driving hours. One day you’re up driving during daylight and the next night, you’re waking up at 10 PM to drive all night to deliver a load in the morning. Variety is the spice of life, right? Well, for some people it is and for some people it isn’t.
Seriously, if you’re a solar driver (can’t stay awake at night), LTL is NOT for you. Literally, 85-90% of our driving is in the dark. I typically start between 8-10 PM. If the miles are there and everything goes smoothly, I’m parked at the terminal and heading to the hotel by 8-10 AM, which is always my goal because you know this cheapskate wants a free breakfast. C’mon, you beautiful waffle maker!
Another major difference is preplanning.
For you newbies and non-truckers, preplans are just what they sound like. Before you’re finished with your current load, your dispatcher is already planning out your next load. As soon as they know for sure, they tell you so you can manage your hours of service better.
The best thing about preplanning is that you almost always knew what you’d be doing next. And the closer your home time got, the more important it seemed. Thanks to preplans, I could often give The Evil Overlord a rough estimate of when I’d be home two days before I got there. Not so with my LTL job.
Like I said earlier, my new company does everything on a first come, first served basis. Whoever gets to the delivery terminal first gets the best load back out. So obviously dispatch can’t preplan you because they never know who is going to show up first.
The only exception to this first come, first served rule is leaving out from home after the weekend off. In this scenario, the driver with the most seniority gets the best load (usually the longest mileage). That seems fair, right? But again, there are exceptions.
Some drivers have bid runs.
These are runs that are consistent enough to warrant the same person doing them every night. This can be great if you’re a top dog, but it can really backfire on you if you’re a lowly peon like me.
You see, there are good bids and there are bad bids.
That driver I was supposed to go with the first week has the #1 seniority spot at our terminal. His bid is St. Louis, drop/hook, and straight back every night. That’s over 3,000 miles per week in 5 days. If you could see me right now, I’m approximately the color of Shrek.
But there are bad bids too.
Right now, my favorite person in the whole wide world isn’t The Evil Overlord; it’s my mentor, Ronnie. I’m pretty sure he’s her favorite person too, and she hasn’t even met him yet! Why?
Because Ronnie chooses to do that Kansas City bid that only pays 1550 miles plus some dock time each week. He’s in his 60’s and he’s really only doing this job for the insurance and to keep active. Unlike me, he’s been smart with his money and doesn’t need more miles. He can usually even finish his run before he needs to take a stupid 30-minute break. And did I mention it’s only 5 days per week?
I actually kind of like that KC bid. It’s got a little bit of driving, a little bit of dock work, and lots of home time. If I was in Ronnie’s boat, I’d love to do that bid run. But I’m not in Ronnie’s boat; I’m in my crappy little dinghy with a leaky hull. If I was forced to do Ronnie’s bid, I honestly don’t think I could work here. I’d have to find another LTL job or go back to OTR. It’s just not enough money.
Sure, I would love to have a good bid and be back home every day, but I’m a long ways off from taking that #1 St. Louis bid due to my low seniority. Besides, all the good bids are taken. But there is one more bid that nobody wants and since I’m the low guy, it’s going to fall to me until we can get someone new hired.
This bid is Joplin to Memphis 3 times one week and twice the next on a continual loop. That’s only 380 miles per day and a lot of sitting at the hotel between loads. Great for the podcast; horrible for my wallet. Normally that would force me to find another job, but everyone tells me that I’ll be able to pick up additional runs to make it worth my while.
For instance, if I get to Memphis early enough and there is freight running to Nashville that they need to move, I could actually turn a 380 mile day into a 600+ mile day. Then I’d swing back through Memphis to get back on my bid run before heading back to Joplin. On my short week, I’ll be able to ask for extra freight on Friday night, but again, this is all dependent on having enough freight to keep us all busy.
You see, being the low man on the totem pole has another downside. If there is additional freight to run, those drivers with higher seniority get first dibs. If they don’t want it, it might fall down to me. In the busy time of the year, there’s enough freight for everyone. The slow time is a different story.
I can really only hope and pray my fellow drivers are right about this bid and these extra runs, because I like this job a lot and really don’t want to have to move on. I see the potential if I can get off this bid and back onto the open board (out all week and back on weekends) and I’m just praying for someone to come along who would enjoy lower miles and more home time. If you know anyone like that in Southwest Missouri, send them my way! Enough about that!
Not sleeping in the truck is another major difference between LTL and OTR.
I mentioned this in TD136: The Emotions Of Changing Truck Driving Jobs. I don’t know if every LTL does this, but if you see them driving day cabs they probably do.
Turns out, it’s not so bad. I’ve had a few rough times trying to sleep during daylight (usually due to have coffee and then getting shut down earlier than expected), but for the most part I’m snoring like a chainsaw. It’s great getting a shower every day too.
I am still getting used to the food. Most of the hotels have microwaves so I’m back to packing cans of soup again. And of course, there’s peanut butter. There’s allllllllways peanut butter.
No parking woes in LTL!
But just as I suspected, the best thing about LTL and day cabs is that I don’t have to find truck parking every day. The only thing I have to worry about is finding someplace to stop for my 30-minute break. And you’ll be happy to know that I haven’t gone all hypocrite on you and blocked the fuel bays. Can’t say that for some of my fellow drivers, but at least I haven’t stooped that low.
Perhaps the biggest difference I see between OTR and LTL is being paid for your time.
As an OTR driver, there is this common thought of “I’m only getting paid if the wheels are turning.” I accepted the fact that I didn’t get paid to fuel, drop/hook trailers, do pre-trip/post trip inspections, sweep a trailer, get a flat fixed, wait for a load to be ready or unloaded, or take a random drug test. It’s all just part of the job, right? I’ve said that to so many drivers in the past.
As an example, I didn’t get paid any detention time until 2013. That’s 16 years if you’re counting! When I finally did, it was only $12 per hour after one hour detention, with a daily cap of $75. I also used to get $75 layover pay or $75 breakdown, but only after 24 hours of continuous downtime.
LTL pays you for your time.
Again, disclaimer here. All LTL companies may not pay for your time, but mine sure does.
With LTL, I get paid for waiting, which is the way it should be. I do give them some time initially, but now I get paid a lot more per hour if I have to wait on a load. And there is no cap!
The other day, I made $100 before I even left the hotel room! I’m not saying that to brag. It’s just that I was being delayed because my load wasn’t ready yet. I was available and ready to go, so I should be getting paid, right? SO SHOULD OTR DRIVERS! But they’re not.
Guess what? For the first time in my career, I got paid for a tire blowout from the minute I called breakdown to the time I pulled out of the shop. Later that week another one blew out and I got paid hourly again. And for the record, this is a decent hourly wage.
In case you didn’t notice, everything I just mentioned involved getting paid for my time. I wasn’t working, but that wasn’t my choice, was it? I prefer to drive because I can make more money than sitting around with my thumb up my keister, but if someone is wasting my time while I’m out on the road, why shouldn’t we drivers get paid for that?
It’s something we OTR drivers have been disgruntled about for decades, but it never changed and likely never will until some drastic steps take place. All I can tell you is it’s amazing how less-stressed you are when you’re being paid fairly for your down time.
So it only stands to reason that I get paid for my work too, right? Yep.
I got paid for fueling for the first time in 21 years. I got paid for dropping and/or hooking a trailer. I got paid for working on the dock. I even get paid a minimum pay if I don’t get a set amount of miles each day.
How much of this is the union?
Now I’m honestly not sure how much of this has to do with LTL and how much it has to do with being a part of the union. After all, they were responsible for lots of labor laws that many people enjoy today.
Enjoy your weekends off and a 40-hour work week? How about paid vacation, sick leave, medical leave, military leave, or paid holidays? Then thank a union. http://www.unionplus.org/blog/union-made/eight-reasons-thank-unions
Now please don’t think the Trucker Dump podcast/blog is going to turn into a platform to promote unions. That’s really not my goal. It’s just that I believe in giving credit where credit is due.
The last major difference I see between OTR and LTL is home time.
Honestly, I was a bit mislead about this. I was told I would be home Friday night or Saturday by noon, when in fact as an open board driver (before and hopefully after this Memphis bid) I’m usually pulling into my home terminal sometime Saturday evening or early AM on Sunday.
That still works for me because I’m still getting adequate home time. Our normal start time is Monday 8-10 PM so I’m still getting close to 48 hours off every weekend. I might get shorted a bit more during the busy season, but I’m kind of a hammer dog anyway so I’m going to take the freight when it’s there and smile all the way to the bank.
And speaking of banks, I’ve already deposited the biggest paycheck I’ve ever gotten in my 21 year career. And that’s with making 11 cents less per mile than my last job. This, my friends, is the power of getting paid for ALL the work you do, not just driving.
Again, not to brag… oh who am I kidding? I’m totally bragging!! LOL
For many years I’ve heard drivers talking up LTL trucking.
I’d always heard they made more money than the average OTR trucker, but I just never took it seriously. Why didn’t I ever take the time to see if there was any merit to it? Dunno.
Listen, I have never been one to tell another driver who to work for. I’ve said it as long as I’ve been blogging; I don’t know your situation and I don’t know what your priorities are, so I’m not going to recommend any particular trucking companies to you. Or types of trucking for that matter.
So if you’re happy with your OTR job, by all means keep it up. But if you’re fed up with not being paid for the work you do or the time you’re being forced to waste out on the road, then LTL driving might be for you.
If you can drive at night without careening off into a river and if you can handle putting in your dues on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder for a while, then I would highly recommend at least looking into an LTL job in your area. What can it hurt?
I can honestly say that I wish I’d made this move about 10 years ago. Then again, if this forced bid thing doesn’t work out for me, I may have to delete this post altogether and disavow any knowledge of it… which would really suck because this sucker took me about 10 hours to write. Yes… seriously.