MANKATO — After seeing business fall off during the start of the pandemic, the trucking industry is mostly back to normal.
“The first days of April we were down 12% in our miles,” said Ryan Viessman, operations director at North Mankato-based Cliff Viessman Inc.
Viessman, which transports a lot of distillers grain from ethanol plants, saw hauling fall off when ethanol plants cut back significantly on production. To make up for part of the loss, Viessman set up some of their tanker trailers to haul more alcohol from ethanol plants, alcohol that’s being used to keep up with demand for hand sanitizer.
He said that since the initial drop, business has come back fairly well.
“Most of what we haul is things from mills to food processing plants,” Viessan said of the company, which has 21 locations across the Midwest and about 500 drivers.
“We’re saturated in the Midwest but go to all 48 states and Canada.”
Minnesota Trucking Association President John Hausladen said various trucking firms were affected differently during the start of the pandemic.
“In March we actually saw, depending on what you hauled, increases in work because of high demand in certain categories.”
He said April was the hardest on most firms.
“Many of our members had dramatic reductions, 30%-50%. If they were hauling to places like schools, they saw a very dramatic drop.”
Others had a short dip in April, but things came back to normal.
“July, doing informal surveys of members, shows we’ve generally bounced back and are performing at levels of a year ago,” Hausladen said. “Manufacturuing, distribution are coming back.”
He said the trucking industry has served the country well during the crisis.
“Throughout this we’ve delivered the freight as needed, made adjustments and have been able to serve our customers at a very high level and safe level. What we need to remember is what happens during the pandemic happens all the time.”
Hausladen is now spending his days at the state Capitol during the special legislative session.
“We’re concerned that employers don’t have more government mandates put on them. Trucking businesses need flexibility to adapt and serve their customers and new mandates on work rules, compensation, hours of operation could create long-term problems.”
Few COVID cases
While there are no hard numbers, Hausladen said trucking has had a very low incidence of positive COVID-19 tests.
“We attribute this to good protocols that were put in place right away and because truck drivers, by nature of what they do, tend to be socially isolated already,” he said.
Hausladen said some companies still have a lot of their office staff working remotely.
“Overall, for a front-line industry that was in the thick of it, we’ve had a very low impact.”
Viessman said they’ve only had one driver who tested positive. “We’ve been very, very fortunate,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things. We supply all our drivers with masks and with sanitizer. They have to sanitize their truck if they’re done for the day. Mechanics have to sanitize them if they move them in and out of the shop.”
Viessman said they’ve also moved to more digital and less paper handling.
“With (truck) wash tickets, we just scan them so the drivers don’t have to touch the paperwork.”
Driver shortage eases
While there has been a shortage of truck drivers for years, the pandemic initially left more truckers than were needed.
“At the height of the pandemic, there wasn’t a driver shortage and we’re still kind of on the tail end of that,” Hausladen said.
“But fleets have restarted their recruiting programs and bringing drivers in.”
Viessman said they’ve had better luck recently finding drivers, perhaps because of the high unemployment. “It’s improved some, but I’m not sure if it’s short term or long term.”
Viessman said some of their drivers haven’t gone back on the road. “A few of our older drivers are just staying home. A handful of them. I guess I don’t blame them.”
Hausladen expects the driver shortage issue to return. “As things ramp back up, the driver issue will ramp back up again. There was a structural driver shortage before COVID-19 and that structural shortage hasn’t changed.
“What we don’t know is how many people exited the industry because of COVID and aren’t coming back,” Hausladen said.
“We’re an industry that relies on an older demographic. We don’t know if there are some great, seasoned drivers that decided they’re done.”