Commentary: Trucking during a pandemic, a firsthand account

These past few weeks have been both the strangest and the scariest of my 32 years as a professional driver.

It is a blessing to be working. I am so grateful to the people who keep us moving. The people who work at the truck stops, convenience stores and food services deserve our thanks and a pay raise. They can’t work from home. They have hundreds of contacts per day. I average about five.

It is strange to be appreciated by the public. People have called us heroic. Those medical people on the front lines are heroes. We are the supply line.

It is confusing. We don’t know when this will end. But the public sentiment does help. There is an electronic billboard thanking truckers that I pass twice a week. That’s nice. Once last week, I went to pay for a snack. The truck stop wouldn’t take my money. Someone had left $100 to pay for truckers’ food. This tough old dog trucker had to wipe his eyes. Thank you.

We can keep the store shelves stocked. There is no need to panic buy. That screws up the system. The system is built to handle what you need. The infrastructure of the logistics industry isn’t built for huge surges.

Your grocery store does not have a storage room in the back to handle a truckload of toilet paper. That has to go through a distribution center. A 53 foot trailer can hold up to 28 pallets of toilet paper. Your store might stock 4 or 5.

Most truck loads of toilet paper at these distribution centers are drop loads. We drop a full trailer and grab an empty one to get the next load. These centers can only unload a specified number of trailers per day. They only have so much space, doors, equipment and personnel. We can deliver more loads there, but they can not unload them.

Hours of service (HOS) are there to protect the drivers and the public. Basically we are allowed to drive up to 11 hours. We have up to a 14 hour work day. Say we start at 7 am. We can not drive after 9 pm. We also can not drive without a 30 minute break after eight hours.

In the 7-9 scenario we would want to take that 30 minute break between 12:30 and 3pm. At the end of our shift we have to take a 10 hour break. An exemption from HOS would allow us to wait longer hours at the distribution centers (usually for no pay) and keep driving. It is a bad idea. What you get are tired drivers. Not only does that mean tired drivers on the road, it means less healthy drivers as the lack of sleep will weaken our immune systems.

The Federal Motor Carriers Administration is rudderless. If you go on their website, Ray Martinez is listed as the administrator. Mr. Martinez left October 31, 2019. He has not been replaced. I am available for the position.

My philosophy is simple. Don’t run into sh*t. If what you are doing makes it more likely to run into sh*t, don’t do it. If what you are doing makes it less likely to run into shit, do that. The HOS exemptions make it more likely that we will. When exemptions are necessary, they should be narrowly defined.

Many companies have decided to stay compliant. That includes Paper Transport of De Pere, WI. That is where I have worked for over 13 years. That is the right decision. Paper Transport is also donating half of our April profits to local food banks along with other local companies that are also stepping up. 

This is tiring. A month ago my job was gravy. It is rare for me to bump up against HOS maximums. I average about 52 hours per week. That is enough for me. It allows me to take better care of myself.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was running three times per week and going to the gym twice a week. This was to train to run a half marathon in Green Bay on May 17. Now the gym is closed. Our Saturday morning group training runs have been canceled. The actual race has given us the option of deferring to next year, or do it virtually. I am still going through the motions of training, but the stress is getting to me.

My greatest fear is getting my wife, or someone I love sick. When I come home, I socially distance myself from my wife. The grandchildren are not coming over. We are blessed. We have some land. I can go outside and work. We have a big garage that always needs cleaning. Some drivers are not that lucky. Many are just not going home.

We are figuring it out, it has become the new normal. Coffee used to be taken for granted. The coffee was always on and available. It was self serve. We filled up our mug or thermos. Now, self service is gone.

But many of our stops have stepped up. They have someone pouring it for us. Some just don’t have the personnel to cover it. That is especially true of the small independents. Business is down. They can not afford the extra expense and have either limited coffee hours, or stopped serving it. We have started a Facebook group to help us find coffee.

My scariest moment during this pandemic came while waiting in line for coffee. A fellow driver standing too close to me declared that no driver has this virus and none of us will get it. He believed it. He is wrong. Our driving force is aging. Many of us suffer from underlying conditions from obesity related diseases. Truckers will die. 

This is an amazing country. Businesses are stepping up to make ventilators and PPE for the medical professionals. My wife and others are sewing masks at home. I am moving freight.

Every time I get back in my truck I am cleaning my hands and steering wheel with disinfectant. Really smart people are studying this virus and they are learning more and more about it everyday. We will get through this.