By Daniel Burrows
Life on the road feels a little more lonely these days. Just ask Harold Simmons.
A truck driver for LS Wilson Trucking of South Jordan, Simmons is afraid to go home because he doesn’t want to risk bringing the coronavirus with him. His wife has had pneumonia, and he wants to protect her.
At truck stops, he is eating alone more often because of social distancing practices in force at restaurants — no more small talk with a driver sitting next to him at the counter.
So, it was a nice change of pace when he recently pulled into a rest area off the highway and a group of strangers were in the parking lot handing out free food to truck drivers. “People, in general, are showing us their appreciation,” Simmons said. “Even shippers and receivers are finally treating us like human beings again.”
In our newfound appreciation for essential workers in the global pandemic, it’s heartening to see the support for our truck drivers. Social media is filled with posts marked with the #ThankATrucker hashtag.
Truck drivers have always been essential employees, hauling freight across the country, away from their families and the comforts of home. They have been easy to ignore because they toil behind the scenes. Most Americans never interact with them, unlike our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, supermarket cashiers and restaurant delivery drivers.
But what’s left of our economy would not be standing without the tireless dedication of professional drivers. They are the essential link in our supply chain. Despite health risks, they are hauling consumer goods to ensure retailers can keep their shelves stocked. They are delivering personal protective equipment and other supplies to hospitals when they often don’t have their own PPE. They are driving into hot zones when others are fleeing.
Truckers are providing critical services even when their own economic well-being is at risk. In the early days of the crisis, freight volumes rose as supermarkets restocked their shelves and other essential businesses built inventory to protect against supply chain disruption. However, as shelter-in-place orders have expanded to cover most of the population, industrial production has contracted and freight volume has declined sharply.
The reduction in freight volume has squeezed revenues for trucking companies. One widely followed financial measure is the dry van spot rate, which is the amount of money a driver is paid per mile to haul freight within about a day of the shipment. This rate has fallen 20 percent since the end of March, according to DAT Solutions. There’s no clear sign when rates might rebound, as some states have extended stay-at-home orders until the end of May and beyond.
Trucking companies say they are concerned about having enough revenue in the coming months to meet their two biggest sources of fixed costs: insurance and loan or lease payments for trucks and trailers.
This is a big concern because many trucking companies are small businesses, just like the florist or the neighborhood restaurant or the hair salon. Most drivers work in fleets that contain 20 or fewer trucks, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).
OOIDA has been lobbying Congress and the Trump administration to do more for the trucking industry during the pandemic, including providing PPE and testing to truck drivers and targeted economic and regulatory relief for trucking companies.
“They’re facing a real economic crisis to be able to continue to operate, not to mention the fact that they actually are on the front line in the battle against coronavirus,” Todd Spencer, president and chief executive officer of OOIDA, recently said on CNBC.
Preserving our nation’s trucking capacity is critical to our economic recovery post-COVID-19. It is essential that when industrial production rebounds, trucking capacity is not constrained. We cannot allow America’s trucking companies to fail or we jeopardize the broader recovery.
Daniel Burrows is the founder and CEO of XStream Trucking, a design and engineering company for connected hardware for the long-haul trucking industry.
This article was originally published in Global Trade magazine.