When shelter in place orders were enacted around the country in mid-March, it was a boon to the trucking industry because of the push to ship essentials, but in April some 88,000 trucking jobs were lost, as deliveries all but halted to non-essential businesses, experts in the industry say.
Today, for those still hauling essential items, such as groceries and medical supplies, work continues to be brisk, but they are facing everyday challenges, such as finding bathrooms, hand washing stations, fast food and dealing with drivers taking more chances on open roads, truck drivers say.
There is also the problem of access to COVID-19 testing while on the road and contracts for less money because demand has gone down.
Tractor Trailer driver Tony Spero of Stratford works for ABF Freight, has 31 years in the business and has plenty of work for him now – as Spero hauls all kinds of freight, including hardware, pharmaceuticals, fire suppression equipment, and other items in Westchester county.
“It’s rewarding and challenging both at the same time right now,” he said. “Without trucks, pretty much America stops and the sad part is this had to happen for people to appreciate that.”
“It’s a complex industry, very diverse, heavily regulated. You have independent truckers and those who work for companies,” and different types of trucks, Taylor said.
She said anyone with a commercial driver’s license has to go by a thick book of regulations developed by the government – and it’s complicated.
With demand down on many products, such as steel, fuel and other non-essentials during state shut down, rates for shipping have been reduced and many truckers are “upset,” she said.
In other words, there are plenty of drivers, not enough freight, so rates are plummeting for independent drivers.
By regulation, contracts between truck drivers, brokers and shippers are supposed to be open to all parties, she said, but some brokers are now finding a way around the transparency in the process, Taylor said.
Brokers, for instance could put a clause into a contract that exempts the transparency rule or by telling contractors they can view the paperwork several states away if they visit in person during business hours, she said.
“The lack of transparency is making truck drivers upset,” Taylor said. “They want to know what shippers are making.” She said while fuel is low-priced these day, truckers face many other expenses on the road.
Spero said the good thing about the absence of people on the road is that when there’s no traffic on Interstate 95 he can do 55 miles per hour instead of 35 in normally congested places like the area between Bridgeport and Greenwich.
The bad news, he said is that regular everyday drivers are driving, “super crazy” on the open road.
Another real challenge he and other truckers are facing is that they used to take bathroom breaks and wash hands when they delivered, but many clients aren’t letting truckers in the building, in the interest of social distancing.
At some locations, truckers are having their temperatures taken, he said, not complaining.
Trying to get food can be difficult because 18-wheelers don’t go through a drive-through, so he’s bringing lunch from home like other truckers.
Another tractor trailer driver, Roland Bolduc, delivers general freight in New Haven and surrounding communities – Branford, Guilford, West Haven, Milford and Wallingford.
He works for a national chain and said drivers in his company are “pretty busy hauling stuff now.”
Bolduc said he has friends in the fuel-hauling industry in Massachusetts where he lives who say they are down 75 percent because so many people aren’t driving, so are not using fuel.
Like Spero, he now brings lunch, has the same challenge with bathrooms and other drivers.
Bolduc said he would trade every billboard and sign thanking truckers “if people would stop speeding and driving recklessly on the open roads.” Bolduc said he wants distance.
His company has instituted a no touch delivery system – customers don’t have to sign for their packages.
Then there are the sad reminders of the pandemic – such as when he delivers to Yale New Haven Hospital and sees the refrigerated truck to hold bodies of those who have died. Bolduc said he’s confirmed that is the purpose of the truck.
“It really hits home when you see something like this,” he said.
Taylor, who hears from truck drivers throughout the country, said of the bathroom access challenge: “It sounds like it shouldn’t be a big deal, really, but it’s a big deal to truck drivers.”
It’s one of the reasons her organization spoke up against closing highway rest stops.
Joe Sculley, president of Motor Transport Association of Connecticut Inc., said in April 88,000 trucking driving jobs were lost in the United States. Those figures were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in a May jobs report.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” these days for truckers, Sculley said. Those in the retail, fuel and non-essential sectors are getting hit hard, he said.
“Trucking companies that service restaurants are laying people off,” Sculley said. “Our members might end up better – small businesses that operate locally.”
Taylor’s organization, the OOIDA, has been assertive in trying to improve conditions for truckers, writing to Congress and President Donald Trump since the pandemic emerged.
The OOIDA wrote on April 3 to Trump with the header “HELP – MAYDAY – 9-1-1,” urging Trump to “safeguard our nation’s supply chain,” with easy access to testing yielding quick results.
In the letter, Todd Spencer, president and chief executive officer of the OOIDA, said the testing, “must be available where they are, particularly on busy truck routes,” and should give results in hours.
“Along with that we need a strategy for treatment or quarantine that could take place at nearby motels,” Spencer said in the letter.
Taylor said there has been improvement on the PPE front.
“Right now, professional drivers are busting their butts to care for the nation,” Spencer said in the letter.
The letter ends with this pointed statement: “We need a plan for them. We need help. Do it.”
In another letter since the pandemic, Spencer also called upon members of Congress for truckers to have easier access to the CARES Act with the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and Emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
Spencer said in the letter, “While news reports may give the impression that business for truckers is booming, the underlying data and feedback from our members paint a much different picture.”
He continued, “Outside of an initial spike in demand for delivering groceries and other essentials, most truckers transporting in other segments of the economy have seen a significant drop in business.”