HOS emergency waiver easing truck capacity crunch

The unprecedented emergency hours-of-service (HOS) waiver issued by regulators last Friday is beginning to provide desperately needed driver flexibility as grocery store restocking has led to skyrocketing truck volumes.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) waiver, expanded on Wednesday to include certain raw materials that go into finished products, was triggered in part by input from groups such as the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), whose members represent an $800 billion industry and include truck fleets from some of the largest warehouse distribution companies.

“The most important part for our members related to the 34-hour restart and rest break rules,” said Doug Baker, FMI’s vice president of industry relations. “We asked for waivers in those areas to give drivers the flexibility to be able to get their trucks on the road quicker.”

The added flexibility is helping FMI’s members address a surge in truckload capacity demand that has led to sharply escalating spot rates.

“After hearing from our wholesale distribution members, we found there was a 100 to 150% increase in volume over four days [March 12-16],” Baker said. “We can’t ship more than we’re already loading and delivering from warehouses, so these waivers are extremely important. Demand is so significant that we have more trucks on the road today than probably we ever have.”

That trend is reflected in increased tender rejections — a refusal by the carrier of the load offer from the shipper — putting upward pressure on rates (see SONAR chart below).

7-day change in outbound tender rejections (%) as of March 19, 2020. Source: SONAR

Justin Frees, vice president of carrier development for Arrive Logistics, agrees that the FMCSA’s waiver is helping to unlock capacity. “But at the same time, some of the wait times at the distribution centers are intense, with trucks lined up for miles,” making it difficult to measure just how much effect the waiver is actually having.

“From a capacity standpoint, this is one of the most unique and confusing times I’ve ever witnessed,” Frees said. “Capacity is very scarce, yet everyone is scared because there are a lot of unknowns right now. One carrier will tell me they’re getting a couple of dollars per mile in one lane, but the next carrier tells me his customer is shutting down.”

Frees said the surge in demand is being counterbalanced by an array of individual policies put in place by shippers and warehouses attempting to mitigate effects of the coronavirus that in some cases impede the ability of drivers to move loads.

“With all these unknowns, everyone has different driver policies,” Frees said. “Some places are turning drivers away if they’ve been out of the country within a certain amount of time, for example, or if they’ve recently been sick — it’s all over the map. We’re trying to stay informed from our warehouse and shippers on their individual policies and rules, which we relay to our carriers who can then tell their drivers so that they know what they’re getting into before they get to the warehouse.”

Baker said another potential capacity solution is working with the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), which represents carriers that haul food to restaurants, to use IFDA’s drivers and assets that have seen volumes drop due to restaurants that have been forced to close by local and state agencies.

“It’s not a concern right at the moment; however, we’re having good conversations with them,” Baker said. “We’re working on a plan that would take advantage of that [sidelined] labor and equipment and bring them over to the grocery sector.”