Heeding the call: Truck drivers re-emerge as ‘Knights of the Highway’ in response to COVID-19 pandemic

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woman holding thank a trucker sign
Megan Lyndberg thanks truckers during a free lunch giveaway Tuesday, March 31, 2020, at a rest area along I-10 in Sacaton, Arizona. The Arizona Trucking Association gave away 500 lunches to truck drivers in appreciation for delivering medical supplies, food, and other necessities during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Associated Press)  

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Wuhan, China, in late December, the disease has spread across the globe, quickly achieving the status of “pandemic.” In mid-April there were nearly 650,000 cases in the U.S. and more than 30,000 resulting deaths; worldwide cases numbered more than 2 million with more than 140,000 deaths.

In early March, as the Trump Administration and state and local governments began to institute social-distancing and hygiene protocols as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the public reacted to regional shutdowns and restrictions by descending on retailers en masse in search of necessities. The result was a rapid depletion of retailers’ and distributors’ stock of household supplies, such as toilet paper and sanitizing agents, as well as a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and sterile gloves.

At first the situation was a bit humorous, and several memes circulated on social media, including one showing a single package of toilet paper being transported on a flatbed trailer. “Where’s the armed guard to protect this valuable shipment?” one truck driver asked jokingly on Facebook. All too quickly, however, the need for such seemingly drastic measures became clear as “toilet-paper bandits” began looting public restrooms and scattered reports of commercial drivers being robbed of their cargo began to surface.

It seems the world has gone crazy, and many wonder when – or even if – life will return to normal.

Enter a new breed of hero: the professional truck driver. Once known as the “Knights of the Highway” because of their reputation for helping motorists in distress, this segment of the  American workforce has finally gained recognition as a vital link in the supply chain.

“If you bought it, a truck brought it” has become the mantra of a nation. One driver even reported being greeted with cheers by both customers and staff when delivering a load of toilet paper to a Costco retailer. The public has also taken notice of the needs of commercial drivers. Realizing that tractor-trailers do not enjoy easy access to prepared food, especially with eateries limited to drive-thru and take-out service, countless businesses, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to meet drivers’ basic needs with free meals, special drive-thru lanes for large trucks, and other services.

“It’s really nice to be recognized as the knights of the road again, and hopefully we’re going to be able to maintain that image as we come out of this challenge,” remarked D.M. Bowman, Inc., President and CEO Jim Ward. “The essentiality of our business is certainly being recognized on a national level in a positive light.”

In spite of the risk of exposure to the new coronavirus and an increased threat of robberies, drivers across the continent have responded to calls for help in the best possible way: They simply do their job, even in the midst of uncertain times.

“Our drivers have totally stepped up,” stated Knight Transportation President and CEO Dave Jackson. “Our people have stepped up. They’re working hard and they’re overcoming any kind of challenges.”

Meeting the nation’s need for everyday necessities and critical supplies offers new challenges for carriers and drivers during the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from minor inconveniences to more serious situations, such as the inability to renew commercial driver’s licenses because of the closure of state licensing agencies.

Events canceled

While the Truckload Carriers Association’s Truckload 2020: Orlando convention was held before gatherings were restricted due to concerns of the spread of COVID-19, numerous other trade shows and events,
including this year’s Mid-America Trucking Show, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Truck Safety Summit, and more, have been postponed or canceled.

In addition, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) rescheduled its annual International Roadcheck, a high-volume inspection and regulatory enforcement event, from early May to later in the year. Roadside safety inspections and traffic enforcement will continue on a daily basis.

Employee health and safety a concern

While the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend frequent hand-washing and the sanitization of frequently touched surfaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, truck drivers face unique challenges in keeping their traveling workspaces (aka their trucks) spotless, especially in light of the nation’s shortage of sanitizing wipes and liquid.

“We have issued an allowance for [drivers] to be able to stop and purchase wipes and hand sanitizers and those kinds of things, if they can find it. We’ve also issued those products and have them available at our terminals for our driving associates,” Ward noted, adding that D.M. Bowman has taken additional measures to educate all team members, as well as their families and the community as a whole, on the CDC’s guidelines to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to a handout that outlines CDC guidance, the company has created an instructional YouTube video and mailed information to team members’ homes.

Meeting basic needs

Many drivers have reported difficulty in gaining access to truck-stop amenities such as packaged food and water, restrooms, and showers, and some states have closed some or all rest areas, adding to the problem.

While the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), an organization that represents truck stops and travel plazas, has urged its members to continue to provide services for truck drivers and other essential personnel, many carriers are taking steps to ensure drivers have food and water readily available.

“We’ve sourced out 80 full truckloads of provisions and have those scattered across 23 different terminals in the Knight/Swift world, and that’s enabled our drivers to come in and grab food products that are easily consumed in the truck,” shared Jackson. “We’ve also got truckloads of bottled water and other beverages just to support them, so they don’t have to go into any crowded spaces to try and find them on their own.”

In addition, the Federal Highway Administration has published a notice that allows states to issue permits for food trucks to operate at rest areas, offering drivers additional options for prepared food.

Economic woes

While the demand for necessities remains high, ensuring that many drivers and carriers remain busy, carriers across the nation have seen a change in freight volume as businesses deemed “nonessential” – those that don’t provide groceries, utilities, or health or financial support – abruptly slowed or ceased the manufacture, transport and sale of many products. The resulting loss of freight has resulted in layoffs for a few North American carriers.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion program signed into law by President Donald Trump, includes small-business-lending programs to help businesses with less than 500 employees maintain payrolls and other expenses. Larger employers are eligible for assistance through loans, loan guarantees, and investments through Federal Reserve lending programs. The CARES Act also includes an Employee Retention Credit to businesses whose operations are partially or fully suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis or whose gross receipts decline by more than 50%.

According to statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 3, the U.S. unemployment rate rose to 4.4% in March (7.1 million people unemployed), a jump of 0.9% from February and the largest jump in unemployment since 1975. The report also notes that employment in wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, and financial activities saw only a small change during March.

Trump calls on industry leaders

On April 14, President Trump called on leaders from various industries, ranging from agriculture to health care, real estate, and sports, as well as transportation, to form Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups. These nonpartisan groups are designed to help put the nation on the road to economic recovery when restrictions due to COVID-19 are lifted.

TCA provides COVID-19 response resources

On March 17, TCA launched a resource page, truckload.org/resources-for-covid-19, to help keep Association members informed during the global COVID-19 crisis. The resource page is updated daily to provide the most up-to-date information possible. TCA also provides daily e-newsletters to keep membership abreast of pertinent news.

“TCA, much like our partners in government, remains committed to the well-being of our members, our employees, and the trucking community as a whole,” stated TCA President John Lyboldt.

In addition, TCA Chairman Dennis Dellinger shared words of inspiration and encouragement with Association members in a letter dated March 19.

“Like health care workers and the producers of life-sustaining goods, trucking is an essential service. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve encountered before. This time it’s different,” said Dellinger.

Dellinger encouraged TCA members to ask for help when needed – even if that help is from a competitor – and to help ensure the health and safety of their employees.

“In order to see our way through this challenging time, the nation requires the trucking community to sacrifice and stretch ourselves,” he continued. “We are facing a common enemy. … You’re the leader. It is not dramatic to state that you are now a wartime leader.

“You are going to feel overwhelmed at times. Your people need you more than ever,” Dellinger exhorted business leaders. “Being a calm and decisive leader during these times, with honest feedback, is what they need, and it’s what the industry needs. Be that leader.”

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Linda Garner-Bunch has been in publishing for more than 30 years. You name it, Linda has written about it. She has served as an editor for a group of national do-it-yourself publications and has coordinated the real estate section of Arkansas’ only statewide newspaper, in addition to working on a variety of niche publications ranging from bridal magazines to high-school sports previews and everything in between. She is also an experienced photographer and copy editor who enjoys telling the stories of the “Knights of the Highway,” as she calls our nation’s truck drivers.
For over 30 years, the objective of The Trucker editorial team has been to produce content focused on truck drivers that is relevant, objective and engaging. After reading this article, feel free to leave a comment about this article or the topics covered in this article for the author or the other readers to enjoy. Let them know what you think! We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

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