As we get deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are finding more Americans to thank. Until recently, truckers have been behind the scenes just doing their jobs, but as shoppers learn how groceries and necessities reappeared on shelves, they join the list of unsung heroes.
Business Insider reported truckers are the reason America’s grocery stores, online retailers, hospitals, gas stations and even ATMs have remained stocked. They number 1.9 million. It’s estimated that grocery stores would be empty within two or three days if truck drivers stopped working.
According to the American Trucking Association, in 2018 trucks moved over 70 percent of freight (by tonnage), hauled nearly $800 billion in merchandise and employed 7.8 million people throughout our economy.
When pandemic shut down our nation, there were unprecedented layoffs, furloughs and business closures. People were told to stay and work from home; however, truck drivers were told to hit the road. They delivered goods from factories and warehouses to retailers which have been overrun. The pandemic created panic buying and hoarding.
In the race to restock shelves, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration immediately suspended hours-of-service regulations for truck drivers. They are allowed to operate longer when hauling certain loads needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Last week, the agency extended that waiver and now also exempts fuel, alcohol for hand sanitizers and disinfectants, and raw materials to make toilet paper, masks and gloves.
Interestingly, when restaurants in most states closed, so did eateries at truck stops. It was further complicated because of social-distancing rules. Drivers couldn’t park their big rigs and walk up to the drive-thru windows to get food.
“It’s often said that ‘an army marches on its stomach,’” Commercial Carrier Journal columnist David Hollis wrote. “But, finding food on the road has proven to be one of the more disconcerting problems wrought by the COVID-19 coronavirus; one that drivers complain about the most.”
CCJ interviewed Jim Nicholson, vice president of Loadsmart. “We’re seeing more and more facilities not allowing drivers to leave their cab for any reason,” he said. Shippers and receivers have instituted a “mixed bag of protocols” regarding social distancing. In most cases that means “fewer options for breaks, restrooms and interactions” for drivers.
Business Insider has been sharing how jobs have changed since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. Many truckers said they’re terrified.
“There are many concerns being 3,000 miles from home,” Todd Hogan, a driver for a midsized food trucking company, told Business Insider. “What happens if I get sick with COVID-19? Will I ever see my family again?”
Getting stranded on the road is a constant fear of drivers. When trucking companies go bankrupt, for instance, many drivers might learn about it just as the company shuts down operations. That leaves them with a week or two of unpaid wages, an $80,000 big rig they must return and no way to get back home other than digging into their pockets to pay for a Greyhound bus ticket.
At its core, the American Trucking Association says it’s an industry of small businesses. Ninety percent of U.S. motor carriers have fewer than six trucks. It’s vitally important to the health of America’s supply lines that small and midsize carriers have the resources they need to withstand this storm.
Struggling small trucking companies (fewer than 500 workers) can qualify for the small business loan assistance under the $2 trillion federal relief program passed two weeks ago.
“[T]here’s one thing all Americans can do right now: Thank a trucker,” the ATA concludes. “Especially during trying times like these. Because without them, the disruptions we’re experiencing would be something much, much worse.”
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.