By Lenny Giteck
Americans are lauding frontline healthcare workers for their valiant efforts to save the lives of people suffering from COVID-19. The accolades are well-deserved: These dedicated professionals risk their lives every day, sometimes without proper protective gear that could help keep them safe.
There is another group providing a vital service to the country: truck drivers. Without them, Americans would not be able to buy food and other supplies that make living in a deadly pandemic possible. Truckers, too, face risks and challenges to bring the necessities of life to the nation.
Rod Nofziger, Chief Operating Office of Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), understands that. The OOIDA, a member of NRRA, insures several thousand truck drivers, some of whom have been communicating with the organization about the current situation.
“Most Americans don’t think about this, but more than 70 percent of all goods sold in this country are delivered solely by truck,” Nofziger says. “The rest are carried at least partway by trucks. Our society simply could not function without truckers.”
Driving 18-wheelers has always been a demanding profession, but now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges truckers face daily. Here is a sample:
Bathroom facilities and showers
While some truck stops around the country remain open, others have shut down to comply with government orders. In the past, drivers have relied on truck stops to use the restroom and avail themselves of showers. Today, even at truck stops that are still open, drivers sometimes are permitted to refuel but are barred from going inside to use the facilities.
The same holds true for warehouses where their cargo is loaded and offloaded. Before the pandemic hit, many of those sites had dedicated restrooms for truckers, plus “trucker lounges” where they could relax. All that has changed: In many cases truckers are no longer allowed to enter the buildings.
Hot, nutritious meals
With so many restaurants and truck stops closed, finding hot and nourishing food on the road is not easy. Maneuvering an 18-wheeler through a drive-though is, of course, a nonstarter. Picking up to-go food from a restaurant can be problematic as well: Where are truckers supposed to park while they run in?
Secure and legal parking
In addition to the closed truck stops where drivers once parked, many interstate highway rest stops are now closed. Traditionally, drivers also have used these facilities to park their enormous rigs. As with truck stops, the drivers may now be prohibited from parking even at inactive rest stops.
Personal Protective Equipment
Like the situation of numerous frontline healthcare workers, there has been a shortage of PPEs for truckers during the pandemic. Some organizations — OOIDA included — have worked to solve the problem, but it remains an issue.
Preserving social distancing is easy when solo truckers are inside the cabs of their vehicles, but they do have to come out sometimes. That can be especially problematic at either end of their runs, when they may become involved with loading and offloading the freight.
Long-haul truckers often are hundreds or thousands of miles from home. What do they do if they become sick, including with COVID-19? Many hospitals and physicians are struggling to keep up with local coronavirus admissions, much less caring for additional patients driving through town.
Because so many manufacturers and other companies have had to downsize or stop their operations, truckers are experiencing significantly depressed freight rates. “In some cases, we’ve seen loads that would normally transport for, say, $3.20 a mile now being offered at $0.95 a mile,” Nofziger points out.
That’s because of supply and demand: With less freight to transport, there has been a glut of available trucks. “The vast majority of long-haul truckers are small businesses,” adds Nofziger. “Just like small businesses in other industries, they simply don’t have the capital to weather a major economic storm.”
Distance from home
Psychologically, being hundreds or thousands of miles away from family members can be anxiety-provoking under the best of circumstances. The stress level has only increased when truckers are not home to keep an eye on loved ones during the pandemic. The same holds true for families who are sheltering in place and feeling anxious about their relatives’ well-being while on the road.
As noted, the OOIDA insures thousands of truck drivers — but even more important according to Nofziger, the organization advocates for the interests of truckers.
The OOIDA has an office in the nation’s capital that “works with members of Congress and folks within the administration to seek ways to ease the burdens on truckers and help them overcome some of their challenges,” Nofizger says.
For example, the OOIDA is advocating for legislation related to parking issues. Also, the organization is educating lawmakers on some of the tax burdens affecting trucking companies. “We’re calling on Congress to ease those in order to help truckers get through these difficult times.”
Those are only two of the things the organization is doing to stand with their trucker insureds. “Each state has an everchanging set of regulations and orders. We are keeping on top of that, literally on a 24/7 basis. We’re regularly updating the information so our members know what they have to deal with when operating in different states,” Nofziger says.
For his part, Nofziger thinks truckers have always been unsung heroes. “The general public has viewed truckers on the road as a hindrance, not a positive. Truckers have had to deal with a lot of negativity — whether cars cutting them off, or trying to scramble around them, or honking the horn from behind because they think the trucks are not moving fast enough.”
Those attitudes may be changing because of the pandemic. “More Americans are beginning to understand how significant a role the trucking community plays in the U.S. economy, and ultimately in their own lives,” he says.
What is Nofziger’s reaction to the nascent shift in attitude? “I say ‘Amen and hallelujah!’ ” he exclaims.