While the meat and poultry processing industry’s ongoing struggle to maintain a stable workforce continues, another labor-related issue has advanced from rear-view-mirror status to becoming a potential detour that stakeholders expect will cost millions and create an animal welfare pothole.
With an already shrinking pool of truck drivers pushing logistical costs up, livestock haulers were bracing for the impact of this month’s expiration of a 90-day waiver period (effective March 18) that would require trucks to be equipped with Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) to verify compliance with the US Dept. of Transportation’s Hours of Service (HOS) regulations. In mid-December, more than 3 million commercial truckers were subject to the ELD mandate, however, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) successfully lobbied the DOT to grant drivers of livestock trucks a 90-day reprieve due to the nature of the freight they haul. That reprieve expires March 18. More lobbying went on in favor of and against the mandate during those 90 days, as both sides weighed in on electronically enforcing HOS rules that limit driving time to 11 hours per day and limit drivers from being on duty for more than 14 hours during a 24-hour period. Once those limits are reached, drivers must immediately pull over and wait 10 hours before resuming their trip. This is inconvenient for the mattress hauler, but simply not feasible for livestock haulers whose top priority is the welfare of their load. The attempt at replacing hand-written, paper logs with an electronic solution, which costs upwards of $1,000 to install each device and about $50 per month to maintain, solves one part of a challenging equation while complicating others.
“They’ve applied a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Michael Formica, assistant vice president and legal council, domestic policy for the NPPC.
Eighteen days from the day when everyone would find out if an exemption would be granted, Formica told me his initial optimism about that prospect was tempered after a flurry of other exemption petitions were filed with the DOT by other groups that represent other segments in agriculture, including haulers of grain, feed, fertilizer and chemicals. “There is a lot of pressure that if they give us one they’re going to have to grant many more,” Formica said. But, as he pointed out, the driver pulling a trailer full of feed that would be required to pull over after hitting the HOS threshold doesn’t have the burden of considering the well-being of scores of animals that livestock haulers have.
“If worse comes to worst and your truck full of corn has to sit on the side of the road for 10 hours, it’s annoying but it’s not the end of the world,” Formica said. “It’s not a truck full of pigs or a truck full of cattle.”
While Formica didn’t have an indication as to whether or not the ELD mandate would be forced on the livestock truckers, he was hopeful that perhaps another waiver period would be announced or possibly HOS regulations would be revisited for livestock haulers or, ideally, an exemption be granted for these transporters. Regardless of the outcome, he makes the bigger point that needs to be addressed: Current HOS rules need to be modified to ensure safety on roadways for all freight, without compromising animal welfare standards for drivers hauling livestock.
Proponents of the regulation, including the American Trucking Association (ATA), highlight the fact that an electronic solution is overdue, as it was a proposed rule in 2007 designed to replace cumbersome paper logs and eliminate fraudulent reporting while addressing the safety hazards of drowsy driving. HOS-compliant drivers with nothing to hide stand only to benefit from the ELD mandate, ATA maintains. Formica and I agree with the ATA on the importance of safety but are bullish on the fact that the solution must include logic-based flexibility and exemptions of the HOS rules that reflect the unique priorities of drivers responsible for cargo that moos, squeals or clucks.