Shantell Pablo heaved a big sigh and shrugged as she headed back to her 18-wheeler during a break at the service plaza along Interstate 70 Wednesday morning between Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.
“I’m just ready for everything to be over,” said the 27-year-old trucker from Metairie, La., who was hauling a load of dry goods from Chicago to Colorado and then on to Texas. “During this time, it has been very difficult for all of us, especially us truckers. It’s put a lot of stress on all of us.”
For weeks, America’s 3.5 million truckers have become unsung heroes of sorts, finding themselves on the front lines in the war against the coronavirus pandemic, racing to deliver food and critically needed medical supplies to a panic-stricken nation.
But the road warriors are facing increasing challenges as the virus continues to spread from coast to coast. Restaurants, fast-food chains and even truck stops are limiting their dining-room access, often leaving the impossible-to-maneuver drive-thru as the truckers’ main option for meals.
Some drivers are experiencing long delays in loading and unloading; others are arriving at their destinations only to find the business shuttered and nowhere to unload their freight.
And while their jobs put them at an increased risk of contracting the virus — handling packages, traveling from place to place and constant interaction with the public — they struggle to find parking spots for sleeping and even places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Then, when they do get home after days or weeks away, they face the possibility of bringing the virus home with them.
Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and a former long-haul trucker, said the challenges put truckers’ health and safety at risk.
“Now, every meal these truckers eat, they’ve got to eat in their truck,” Pugh said. “It’d be like sitting and eating in your car every single meal.”
Truckers also are experiencing problems with customers when they pick up and deliver, he said.
“They’re not letting them use the restrooms or providing them with facilities to wash their hands,” he said.
Another issue, Pugh said, is not being able to load and unload trucks at some places.
“We’ve had guys who picked up freight and they went to deliver and they couldn’t deliver and then they called to take it back to the shipper and now the shipper’s closed,” Pugh said. “We’re still working through that.”
Pablo, the Louisiana trucker, said many shippers and receivers are requiring drivers to complete and sign a form saying they are not sick.
It also asks where they have been and whether they have traveled to certain foreign countries in the past 14 days, she said.
Another problem, she said: “Shippers and receivers usually have hand sanitizers for us to use, and even the truck stops do. But good luck finding your own bottle. Now, people are coming to the truck stops and buying that stuff up.”