What a difference a year makes. Cargo and container volumes have been sliding at the Port of Vancouver since late 2022, following months of backlogs and congestion, and the truckers who serve it are paying the price.
Volumes were down 3% as the year ended and are expected to normalize to 2019 levels by the second half of 2023, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority projects. About 30% of inbound container volumes are moved by trucks.
Dimensional lumber and forest products represent one of the biggest export commodities moved through the port, and a significant downturn has been seen in those as well, said Dave Earle, president of the British Columbia Trucking Association (BCTA).
“That’s likely to continue indefinitely, frankly, so I don’t know what that means longer term. But this isn’t going to resolve in a month or two, it’s going to be a while,” he added. “We’re going to have to wait and see how our broader economic indicators are.”
A year ago, marine operators couldn’t move containers through a western port because of congestion. Now they have options. “Do they go through Vancouver, Rupert, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Long Beach? What happens in the longer term?”
Overtime rates rise
As a part of the solution, the Container Trucking Commissioner has increased the overtime rates for directly employed operators. As of May 1, the company drivers are entitled to 1.5 times their applicable hourly rate beyond nine hours in a day and over 45 hours a week. The next hourly increase of over 6% is expected in June.
BCTA is concerned about the increasing costs in an environment where business remains down.
“The solution is not to add more and more and more cost to the system. All we will do is price ourselves out of the market. And then we will be in real trouble. Now, we’re nowhere near that right now … [but] our economy is not invulnerable,” he said.
“We have to be thoughtful about how we do things. And I appreciate the pressure that the [trucking] commissioner is under, to try and find that right balance.”
Owner-operators lose work
Independent owner-operators have been complaining to the trucking commissioner that fleet drivers are getting too much of the work which remains.
“Our members are sitting at home, and they don’t have any work,” said Gagan Singh, spokesman for the United Truckers Association. While the association doesn’t track the volume in a formal database, he said it is believed to have dropped by 50%.
“They’re independent. They can go work for whomever and wherever they want. They get paid more and make more when it’s busy. And when it’s not busy, they make less,” Earle said. “There is an opportunity for profit and risk of loss. If there’s no risk of loss, you’re not independent.”
But Singh says fleets have another advantage.
Last year the trucking commissioner assigned 50 tags, which give the trucks permission to haul containers. Forty of those were for company trucks, he said. In some companies, one truck can complete the volumes that would be handled by five or six owner-operators in a day, he added.
All of these factors, of course, have financial consequences for the independent drivers.
According to Singh, some owner-operators make between $2,500 and $5,000 per month these days.
“Some truckers, they have their monthly payments for trucks, and sometimes the payments are up to $3,500.”