Trucker Will Hart has been hauling one thing or another for most of his adult life.
But never in a pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak and its related shutdown this spring resulted in a sudden appreciation of the role people like Hart, a 44-year veteran driver from Bloomington, play in stocking grocery shelves, factory floors and distribution centers for popular online retailers.
“Everyone in the trucking industry is making that sacrifice,” Hart said. “This is what we have to do.”
The nation’s 2 million truck drivers, deemed essential workers in the pandemic, are now viewed by some as heroes — just like doctors, nurses and grocery store clerks.
“Truck drivers are getting the credit they’ve long deserved in this crisis,” said John Hausladen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Trucking Association.
With trucks moving about 71% of the nation’s freight, the industry “provides the essential goods that we need,” he added.
As consumers experience flash shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other seemingly random household staples, they may suddenly wonder where it came from. “It takes a slowdown and stoppage in the economy to change the perspective on how it all works,” said Stephen Burks, a professor of economics and management at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
Still, Hart seems a little uncomfortable with all the hero talk.
“I’ve never associated myself with doctors, nurses or people with five degrees attached to their names,” he said recently while hauling a load for the military in his 18-wheeler from Roanoke, Va., to Lansing, Mich.
“I’m doing the best I can for the country,” Hart said.
Truck drivers and their employers have found in recent months that a highly contagious virus and its economic fallout make an already challenging job even tougher. Just finding a place to eat in the middle of a national shutdown is problematic, because many restaurants and truck stops have closed or cut back to curbside service.
Many drivers had already outfitted their cabs with refrigerators, freezers, slow cookers, coffeemakers and microwave ovens to make living on the road more homey.
“My wife makes sure I have food. She makes it at home and then I put it in the fridge and freezer in the truck,” said Tim Porter, a driver based in Mankato. But sometimes, he just wants to stretch his legs and get out of the truck for a meal, a luxury no longer available.
This month, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order permitting food trucks to operate at six state rest stops along the busy Interstate 94, I-35 and I-90 corridors so that truckers and travelers could have another option for meals. On Friday, Walz extended previous executive orders that exempted vehicles and drivers hauling essential goods from some regulations, including limits on weight and hours of service.
Finding bathrooms and showers can be challenging, too.
“I have a container of wipes and I’m wiping down countertops constantly,” said Porter, whose wife is a nurse, a cancer survivor and a stickler for sanitizing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated guidance for truck drivers with advice to “make a plan with your employer and your family as to what to do if you become sick while you’re on the road. Include where to stop, where and how to seek medical advice and treatment, and plans for freight delivery.”
Trucker Bob Stanton said the prospect of getting sick while on the road is downright scary. “If a driver is too far away from home or not sick enough to go to the hospital, what do you do? The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ You could check into a hotel to self-quarantine, but some won’t take you.”
With testing already scarce, truckers could be at a loss to find proper health care on the road, said Stanton, who is based near Chicago but frequently hauls to Minnesota.
Trucking companies say they’ve had to figure out what works best to keep employees safe. “There are a lot of tough individuals in and around the industry,” said Brent Bois, president of Twin Cities-based Calhoun Truck Lines. “But not having a playbook is the most frustrating part of it.”
The CDC says potential sources of exposure for long-haul truckers include close contact with truck-stop attendants, store workers, dock workers and fellow truck drivers.
While some companies provide employees with masks, hand sanitizer and wipes, they’re competing for the same protective goods needed by other essential employees.
“We’re fighting with everyone else at Costco and Walmart to get them,” said Stanton. “I’m lucky my family buys it.”
In a survey of truck drivers by the analytics firm WorkHound, 18% of the 750 respondents to questions about COVID-19 issues said they wanted their employers to ensure their equipment is safe and sanitized.
“Even the most basic precautions like frequently washing one’s hands become impossible if soap is not available in terminal bathrooms,” the survey notes. “Drivers expect their companies to be able to provide basic necessities. Without them, drivers not only feel unsafe, but also disrespected.”
In addition, about a quarter of drivers responding to the WorkHound survey on virus issues expressed frustration over not receiving “hazard” pay while working during the pandemic. Truck drivers “overwhelmingly feel that their compensation does not accurately reflect their essential status,” the study notes.
This issue may gather steam in coming months as the economy struggles to regain its footing.
The initial surge of demand at the beginning of the pandemic has slowed, and now some drivers worry about their livelihood as parts of the economy shut down. Last month, there were about 88,300 fewer people working in the truck transportation industry than in March, according to preliminary figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Now we’re at the worst of times, a lot of corners of the economy aren’t functioning at all or on a limited basis,” Stanton said.
As Burks noted, “There’s going to be layoffs or people driving less miles for some time; it will vary by company and by segment.”
Early in the pandemic, Hart hauled thousands of pounds of cookies, pasta, granola bars and other staples to food banks across the country. He found himself thinking about who would be getting them.
“It could be my son, my neighbors, this quietly minority of people you would normally see at restaurants, mechanics at garages, clerks at retail stores,” Hart said.
The pandemic, he said, “is having an effect on everyone.”