As the moving season — from May to September — gear ups for service members and families, persistent problems with labor shortages make it difficult to predict what those moves will look like.
But there have been improvements in the rules for making a permanent change of station move, relating to replacement costs for items lost or destroyed and the handling of lithium batteries, privately owned firearms without serial numbers, gun safes, electronic products and other items, according to officials with the U.S. Transportation Command, the agency responsible for the household goods process.
The shortage of truckers has persisted for years, long before the pandemic.
“Truckers, drivers are a key component of the household goods process. It’s been problematic, and I would say it won’t be any different this summer,” said Dan Bradley, director of government and military relations for the International Association of Movers.
“Moving companies have continued to pay more for labor, pay more for drivers, but it’s an availability issue,” he added. “You’re competing with a lot of people who do a lot of different logistics and transportation jobs. If you find good labor and find good drivers, they’re golden. Those people are gold.”
Service members and families are being moved this moving season under the household goods process that’s been in place for years, not the new Global Household Goods contract.
Officials are focusing on upcoming moves under the current system while starting the transition to implement the new program. No service members will be moved under the reformed process until September, when a phased implementation will begin, said Andy Dawson, director of the Defense Personal Property Management Office.
Industry and TRANSCOM officials have been working to iron out issues to ensure household goods moves are as smooth as possible during this peak season, June and July. Understanding the challenges ahead, they are asking moving companies to only accept the shipments they can service. In recent years, when companies were overloaded, some service members were left stranded when no one showed up to pack and load their household goods. A host of other problems have cropped up as well, notably damaged and lost items.
Meanwhile, changes in regulations and evaluations affecting moving companies have left them uncertain about how much business they will get this year and how the new contract will affect them in 2024. As a result, they may be taking a conservative approach to hiring and prepping equipment, worried that making investments now may be too much of a gamble. Some long-time movers are deciding to shut their doors, Bradley said.
“When you execute over 300,000 shipments a year, it’s hard to talk in generalities about the impact of some of the changes,” Dawson said. “Every individual move has its own set of circumstances surrounding it.”
There were 302,731 shipments in 2022, and officials expect about the same number this year, Dawson said. Shipments don’t equate to the number of moves; some service members have multiple shipments.
Some changes implemented last year contributed to a better experience for service members, “not perfect, but better,” he said. For example, the military branches have worked to somewhat ease the number of people moving in the peak season crunch time. TRANSCOM officials also worked with service officials to set a DoD-wide goal of limiting the maximum number of moves to 9,000 per week.
Some rule changes this moving season
♦ Lithium batteries: Movers must properly pack and label lithium-ion batteries of 100 watt-hours or less (lithium metal batteries 2 grams or less) in personal property. Previously there were no clear rules about handling these batteries, and it was handled on a case-by-case basis. More frequently, movers are seeing lithium battery power rather than electric in common items such as vacuum cleaners and lawn equipment, Dawson said.
“That’s one of those things that puts service members in a last-minute predicament,” he said. “We’re trying to clarify what industry can ship in compliance with federal law, so service members aren’t forced to make a decision based on things they’ve procured with their hard-earned money” when a mover isn’t able to take the item.
♦ Privately owned firearms without serial numbers: New rules primarily affect firearms considered to be antique. Any firearm manufactured after 1968 and without a serial number won’t be packed. Those that are made before 1968, but without a serial number, can be packed. For those firearms, a Customs and Border Protection Form 4455 Certificate of Registration is required — or a bill of sale, a receipt or other document adequately describing the firearm, such as special markings — on the household goods inventory. Previously, there was no distinction for shipping firearms without serial numbers, which caused concern about tracking lost or stolen weapons.
♦ Gun safes: Companies must now either weigh empty gun safes separately, or the use the manufacturer’s weight to meet the Joint Travel Regulation requirement to allow 500 pounds of additional weight in personal property shipments.
♦ Replacement costs: For lost or damaged items, the replacement liability for the company must be based on the local replacement cost or cover any shipping or delivery costs — without passing on membership fees, which may be required to purchase the item, to the service member. In situations where a repair estimate can’t be obtained, the moving company is responsible for full replacement value.
♦ Damage to electronic items: Items that no longer work when they arrive at the destination will be assumed to be related to the transit, unless the problem was documented before leaving the customer’s residence.
♦ In-transit visibility: Moving companies must provide shipment updates in the Defense Personal Property System, such as when it enters or leaves storage, arrives or departs from a port of embarkation, or there is a delivery date change. This will allow DoD and service members to track and confirm information about their shipment.
Coming soon — a new moving system
The new Global Household Goods program is expected to be fully in place for domestic shipments by peak season 2024. A phased approach will start later for international moves, to be fully in place by the 2025 moving season.
The new contract, worth a potential $17.9 billion if DoD exercises all contract options over the next nine years, aims to fix military families’ long-standing problems with damaged household goods, missed pickup and delivery times, and other frustrations with movers.
The contract will essentially outsource the management of the process that moves service members’ household belongs, providing complete door-to-door household goods relocation transportation and warehouse services. TRANSCOM will continue to oversee the program. But it’s the first time the Defense Department has consolidated management of the movement of service members’ belongings under one contract.
Dawson said he has spent a lot of time talking with industry representatives and others, including military spouses, in his first months on the job, “to make sure I’m oriented right in making the best recommendations to leadership at TRANSCOM and across the department, so we can get this right for everyone.”
He also speaks from personal experience. Dawson, a retired Army officer, made nine military moves in his 25-year career.
“I remember every single move,” he said. “I come into the job with a sense of empathy for what our service members are going through as they relocate around the world.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.