Truckers: Full tank, empty pockets

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2008 - 10:48 PM

The fast-rising price of diesel fuel, now nearly $4 a gallon, is hitting independent truckers where it hurts.

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Bob Kantaris of Mason City, Iowa, filled up his 18-wheel rig for the second time in two days. It cost $736.77 to fill his two 120 gallon tanks on Monday at Stockmen’s Truck Stop in South St. Paul. “Drivers are parking their trucks and going to work for somebody else,” he said.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Bob Kantaris pumped $736 of diesel fuel into his semi Monday at Stockmen's Truck Stop in South St. Paul. But many truckers can't afford diesel fuel anymore, he said.

"Drivers are parking their trucks and going to work for somebody else," said Kantaris, of Mason City, Iowa.

Gasoline prices have risen in the past two months, but diesel fuel prices have risen even faster: 18 percent, an increase that many truckers have been unable to pass on to their customers. Some truck drivers nationwide are planning a work slowdown beginning today to protest the high prices, and many drivers in Minnesota wonder how long they can survive.

Tracy Reinke, a Stillwater-based independent trucker, said diesel fuel costs are now gobbling up two-thirds of his revenue, compared with one-third a year ago.

"The big trucking companies buy a lot of fuel and get a discount, but the little guy doesn't," said Reinke, a contract driver who owns and pays the expenses for his two semitrailer trucks. "If I have a major breakdown on a truck -- an engine or a transmission -- I won't have enough money to fix it."

But big trucking companies also are complaining about high fuel prices, said Tiffany Wlazlowski, a spokeswoman for American Trucking Association, an Arlington, Va., trade organization for the larger members of the trucking industry.

"Trucking companies operate on a 3 to 4 percent gross profit margin," she said. "While fuel historically is their second-highest cost after labor, it has become the top expense."

For a long time, diesel fuel prices were lower than those for regular unleaded gasoline, but that hasn't been the case since mid-2007. On Monday, diesel ranged from $3.69 to $3.99 a gallon in the Twin Cities, according to the website TwinCitiesGasPrices.com. Regular unleaded gasoline ranged mostly from $3 to $3.19 a gallon.

Some drivers are working more hours, hoping to raise their incomes enough to offset fuel prices.

"I'm OK as long as I can work all the time," said Steven Hill, a driver from Woodbury. "But I have to work more because with the current price of diesel I'm losing $500 a week on fuel costs. I'm now hauling loads to California three times a month instead of two to try to make up the difference."

Adding to truck drivers' woes is that many shippers are unwilling to pay their drivers a suggested fuel surcharge that, at today's prices, is about 49 cents a mile, said Larry Daniel, president of America's Independent Truckers' Association, a driver advocacy group in Clinton, Miss. As a result, truckers who accept loads from those shippers must shoulder the entire burden of rising diesel fuel prices.

"Independent truckers need the cash flow to pay their bills, so out of desperation they take loads even though the shipper won't pay the fuel surcharge," Daniel said. "The trucker may not make anything hauling that load, and sometimes he loses money, but he may get enough cash flow to pay his current bills for his truck, or insurance, or house, or credit cards. But there's no light at the end of the tunnel; he's in a downward spiral."

Added Reinke: "I've turned down three loads in the last five months because they didn't pay enough. I've never done that before."

Trucker Bob Clark of Eau Claire, Wis., also fueling up at Stockmen's on Monday, hopes this week's planned work slowdown -- or strike, as some truckers call it -- will attract national attention to the plight of independent truck drivers.

"But I don't think enough drivers will join the strike to get it done," he said.

Daniel said the strike is ill-advised anyway, because it financially hurts truck drivers who can't afford to lose work.

"Our position is that truckers need fuel surcharges, not strikes," Daniel said. But he conceded that drivers lack the organizational clout to force shippers to pay the surcharges.

If truckers don't get financial help soon, it will be the country that's in trouble, not just drivers, Clark said, noting that most food is transported by truck.

"Without trucks, the country will begin to starve in four days," Clark said. "It won't take a big increase in the price of diesel fuel to devastate this country."

But if the country gets hungry because drivers can't afford fuel, some truckers are already there, said Georgia Ohmann of Hastings, who waits tables at Stockmen's Truck Stop.

"I see guys who are eating one meal a day," she said. "Or they don't buy a beverage with their food. These are little things, but it's what drivers give up."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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