America's truckers face increasing challenges on front lines in war against coronavirus

Durante semanas, los 3.5 millones de camioneros en EEUU han sido vitales para mantener en vilo la economía del país en medio de la crisis por la pandemia del coronavirus. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)

By Judy L. Thomas

The Kansas City Star

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 and Kansas City.

“I’m just ready for everything to be over,” said the 27-year-old trucker from Metairie, Louisiana, 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, he said, is not being able to load and unload 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’re not sick. It also asks where they’ve 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.”

Mirsad Tiric, an owner-operator from Syracuse, New York, stopped to sleep Tuesday night at the I-70 service plaza on his way to California but said he had a tough time finding a parking spot.

He said he was surprised to see so many people picking up food Wednesday morning at the McDonalds restaurant there.

“I came from New York, and everything is shut down there,” he said. “This part of the country doesn’t seem so safe. People aren’t staying home like they should be.

“That worries me. I’m not eating inside anywhere _ just using the bathroom and washing my hands.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter last week to President Donald Trump asking for help in addressing some of its concerns.

“Truckers are a vital component of the supply chain, hauling loads that help keep hospitals prepared, manufacturers productive and grocery stores stocked,” wrote Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Grain Valley, Missouri-based organization.

“Unfortunately, our members are encountering many challenges that unnecessarily slow the movement of goods, limit the effectiveness of response efforts and jeopardize their personal health and safety.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation has taken significant steps to efficiently move essential freight across the county, Spencer said, but more must be done to alleviate the problems truckers face.

The top concern, Spencer said, is the lack of adequate parking for commercial vehicles. The association also asked that the DOT lift the hours-of-service requirements that restrict the number of hours truckers can drive, with the exception of a 10-hour mandatory rest period between loads. So far, the DOT has waived the requirements for the shipment of emergency supplies only.

Spencer said in his letter that the refusal of many shippers and receivers to allow truckers to use their restrooms — claiming the action is being taken to control the spread of the virus — is “unconscionable.”

“These claims are both counterproductive and insulting,” Spencer said. “As the most transient community in America, truckers must have the capacity to wash their hands after handling freight, paperwork and business equipment to help contain the spread of the virus.”

Spencer told The Star the organization has had “somewhat of a dialogue” with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in response to the letter.

Trump did, however, give a shout out to truckers during his press briefing on Monday.

“Thanks also to the hard-working men and women of Federal Express, UPS, United States Postal Service and the truckers who are maintaining our supply chains and supply lines,” Trump said. “We thank you very much. Great job.”

Lawmakers also are taking notice.

“There are a lot of folks across the country working hard to ensure we have the essential resources or services we need during this challenging time,” U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, tweeted last week. “Truck drivers are one of them and they don’t get much attention. When they do, it’s often underappreciated.”

Ohio trucker Thomas E. Miller keeps a journal of his travels that he posts on Facebook.

“The past couple of weeks have been stressful for everyone, as I’m sure the weeks and months to come will be as well,” he wrote on March 21. “Remember, when you see a driver, a lot of them spend weeks (sometimes months) away from their families at a time, and just a smile and a simple wave as you go past them on the road goes an incredibly long way! It always brightens my day a bit!

“With all of that said, we will continue to work our hardest to get you the things you need. We are running around the clock to get items to the store shelves for you, the American people. We won’t stop, until the job is done, it’s what we do.”

The American Trucking Associations said the industry is more vital now than ever.

“Trucks are moving, delivering goods to grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies and other facilities,” the organization said last week, adding that the industry is working hard to keep up with the demand for products.

“We remain in close contact with food distributors and partners throughout the logistics network,” the ATA said. “There is plenty of food, water, medicine, fuel and, yes, toilet paper, in our supply chain. The empty shelves temporarily seen are simply the result of surge demand as Americans rush to stock up.”

Some businesses and law enforcement agencies are starting to step up to show their support.

Police in Holdenville, Oklahoma, said last week that they would help get food for truckers passing through their town. In California, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Palmdale Station is encouraging locals to offer to buy a trucker a meal if they see them trying to walk up to a drive-thru.

“Most places do not allow walk ups in the drive thru,” the department said in a Facebook post last week. “Therefore, these truck drivers have no other way of getting a meal. These drivers are the ones driving across the state/country to make sure your stores are stocked, and the restaurants have food. The least we can do is buy them a meal to show our appreciation!”

And on Monday, McDonalds announced it was offering curbside service for truckers at many of its locations.

Truckers said while they’re enjoying the love, it’s sad that it took a global pandemic for many people to appreciate the value of what they provide.

“I feel like now everyone is starting to worship us because we’re the ones that are basically keeping things in the stores during this time,” Pablo said. “I feel like truck drivers should always be appreciated and not just during this time.

“Without truckers, the world just stops.”

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