Mover Shortage Causes Major Headaches for Military Families During PCS Season

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Family moves from Laughlin Air Force Base
A moving truck sits at the ready to move a family from Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, June, 16, 2021, to their new home and base. (Airman 1st Class David Phaff/U.S. Air Force)

In Norfolk, Virginia, a military family with 16,000 pounds of household goods scheduled their cross-country move to San Diego last month, only to have it canceled at the last minute.

In Washington state, an Army family set up a moving date as soon as they received orders to Rhode Island, but after realizing they hadn't heard back from the transportation office, reached out again and learned they were in limbo, waiting for a company to agree to move their belongings.

In both cases, the families spent days searching frantically for a private company to handle the move and contemplating doing it themselves with a U-Haul before both were rescheduled.

Being told by transportation offices that they might have to move themselves was the worst part, both families said.

"I feel like if they had a little bit more or a lot more transparency in communication, it would have set us up for better ability to plan ... Maybe it would have reduced our stress load," said the Army wife in Washington, who requested that her name not be used to avoid blowback from her husband's command.

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A labor shortage and slight uptick in volume of military household goods shipments is creating chaos this year for some military families with permanent change of station orders.

The problem is particularly bad in states with large military populations and in remote areas where there aren't enough companies to support the volume, said Rick Marsh, director of the Defense Personal Property Program at U.S. Transportation Command.

"The military areas with the tightest capacity include Washington state, South Dakota, California, Colorado, Texas and Hawaii," Marsh said. "In many areas, the moving companies are already booked through July."

Among the reasons for the delays is a nationwide labor shortage of packers and truck drivers during a period in which military and commercial moving is at its peak.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are half as many available workers for every job opening across the country as there have been in the past 20 years -- 1.4 workers per opening versus 2.8 -- and in some areas, there are fewer job seekers than the total number of jobs open.

And when it comes to filling positions at moving companies, quality matters, Marsh said.

"Economists debate this point with every jobs report and, I won't comment or speculate on the broad economic or social factors impacting the labor market. I simply want to ensure that military personnel and their families have a safe quality move in and they are treated with respect in the process," he said.

During a typical year, U.S. Transportation Command oversees 325,000 household goods shipments.

This year, of the 130,000 moves scheduled so far, there have been 120 "turn-backs" as the result of labor constraints -- incidents in which a moving company has accepted a booking but has to cancel before the moving date because they don't have the manpower to execute the move.

The cancellations, followed by a rescheduling, are actually the result of transportation offices working "hard to find a moving company" for service members.

"We recognize that there's fierce competition for moving crews and drivers. Stranding service members or leaving families guessing about when they are going to move? That's as disrespectful as it gets," Marsh said. "We want to know about it and we want to help."

For the Army family in Washington, the issues began when they contacted their transportation office and never received a response. After several weeks, they circled back and learned that more paperwork was needed to schedule their move.

As their chosen date approached -- between June 21 and June 25 -- they were told the date had to be the 18th, which they accepted. But by May 27, they had not heard from the transportation service provider. Three weeks out from the move, they called back.

"We learned that they bid it out to the contractors and it kept getting rejected," the spouse said. "They have up to five days before the load date to accept the job, and if it doesn't get picked up, it's on you to move if you need to go then."

Fortunately, the transportation office found a company that would do the job -- on June 15. The company packed their entire household and loaded everything onto a truck in one day.

"That's never happened before. And it was really efficient and professional. It was amazing. I was flabbergasted," she said.

In 2018, thousands of military families reported having disastrous PCS moves, from scheduling pickups and deliveries to furniture breakage and theft of personal items.

Megan Harless, an Army spouse who sits on U.S. Transportation Command's PCS advisory board, said she is seeing fewer complaints this year than in 2018 apart from scheduling problems. Still, those issues are significant, she said, and they include "blackout" dates during which no one can schedule new moves and some families managing their own moves, known as personally procured moves, to overseas locations.

"We're seeing overseas PPMs being authorized. Not just Hawaii or Alaska, but to Germany," Harless said. "It would be like once every five years you would hear about something like that."

Even with the issues this year, customer satisfaction rates are at 96%, according to Marsh. But, he cautioned, that the surveys are from moves that occurred last month and do not reflect the current market.

"From an issue perspective it's a lot of the typical stuff that revolves around respect -- respecting people in terms of making sure you aren't leaving a customer guessing when a crew will be at the house, you having a professional experience ... respecting people's homes," Marsh said.

Harless said that ideally, some of the issues could be solved by staggering orders to give families more flexibility in scheduling and prioritizing military personnel who have orders to report by certain dates.

"Families may want to take leave and roll, right? They want to get moved in and get settled. But they're trying to move in June with the folks that have to report in June -- maybe we could prioritize those with the earlier report dates," she said.

The family in Norfolk learned at the last minute that their scheduled pack-out date of May 28, set in March, had been canceled with no new rescheduling date. On June 1, they learned that the packers would be there the following day and pick-up would be on June 3.

"Frantically pre-packing today to try to speed up the process tomorrow," said the spouse, a Navy wife whose husband has 24 years of service, on June 1.

The family in Washington said they had similar panic, considering whether to send the service member ahead while waiting for a new date. With the move having been rescheduled, the family is now "camping" in their home with the bare basics -- sleeping bags, a few dishes and pots and pans -- until June 28 when they close on the sale of their house.

The experience is part of the military lifestyle, the Army spouse said. But she added that she would have liked clearer communication with the transportation office. In her case, officials did not contact her to ask for the required additional paperwork when they registered for the move in March.

The family, who is on their eighth military move, recommended that military personnel stay on top of things as soon as they notify the transportation office that they have orders.

"If you haven't heard, start calling. And email as well. That way, should there be any type of a serious issue, you've got your bases covered," she said. "Our transportation office told us that they prefer email probably for the same reason."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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