There are plenty of economic indicators that tell us what’s been happening in the economy, such as housing starts, retail sales, and first-time applications for unemployment.
But to see what’s coming down the pike, the trucking industry can shed light on what consumers will be demanding in the future. And right now, trucking companies are providing an early warning signal about sectors of the economy that are weakening.
There’s a grocery store and wholesaler called Sahadi’s in Brooklyn that imports and sells products from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Pat Whelan runs logistics for Sahadi’s. Over the last couple months, he said he’s been getting a lot of unsolicited emails from trucking companies.
“Just randomly, constantly, asking for cargo,” Whelan said. “‘Do you have anything, do you have anything, do you have anything?’ One, I think, was like two or three times a day.”
Whelan said he’s never even heard of these trucking companies. Watching his inbox fill up with these emails, he said, is troubling.
“When you see them constantly looking for cargo, that means they’re not getting their normal cargo,” Whelan said. “So, what did they lose? What’s not shipping?”
One answer? Food supplies to restaurants. Mike Kucharski is the vice president of JKC Trucking, which operates over 200 refrigerated trucks from the Midwest to the West Coast. He said shipping foods to restaurants, hotels, and bars used to make up nearly half of his business.
“We’re about 35% to 45% down,” Kucharski said. “What these truckers are doing is they’re searching to haul anything.”
Kucharski’s company moves products to grocery stores, too. He said there’s been an uptick in that, but it hasn’t made up for the closed restaurants and bars. Now, he’s reaching out to potential customers to see if he can drum up any newbusiness.
“We’re also reaching out saying hey, where are other truckers failing you,” Kucharski said. “We even negotiated some lower rates to help move it along, too.”
When trucking companies are reaching out to find new customers, that may mean they’re worried their oldcustomers might go out of business, said Dale Rogers, a professor of supply chain management at Arizona State University.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the companies [truckers are] going to work with over the next several months, and as this thing ends,” Rogers said.
Some transportation companies are seeing a rosier picture.
“Importers are placing big bets, there’s no question imports have surged, especially in the LA basin, coming in from Asia,” saidWilliam Villalon, CEO of APL Logistics, an international supply chain company.
Villalon said he sees signs that other sectors of the economy are recovering, too. For instance, auto parts are moving, a sign that people will be buying more vehicles.
“You’re seeing a spike in forest products, because housing starts are up,” Villalon said. “Because demand is up.”
But Villalon said the real question is whether that increase in demand is sustainable.
Cities across the nation are experiencing protests and riots as calls to defund the police intensify. One America’s Stephanie Myers spoke with the co-owner and vice president of JKC Trucking, Mike Kucharski, about the dangers posed to truck drivers amid the radical proposal.
Life as a long-haul trucker has always had its challenges — boredom, bad traffic and tough schedules.
But the coronavirus pandemic has added new problems, with closed rest stops and roadside restaurants, along with varying levels of compliance by both drivers and the individuals they encounter when it comes to wearing face masks. Drivers say it can also be tough for for them to get tested for COVID-19.
With several interstate highways and its location in the nation’s center, Chicago is a major trucking hub. Truck drivers offer a unique perspective on the coronavirus pandemic because they are one of the few groups of essential workers who have been traveling regularly between different regions of the country.
“We’re supposed to be America’s heroes, essential workers out on the road, but we can’t get anywhere to stop and eat dinner now,” said Bob Easom, 43, who lives in Delaware and drives in the Midwest and along the East Coast.
Even as businesses are starting to reopen, Easom said he still finds closed rest areas, restaurants that are open but have limited hours, and warehouses that take truck deliveries and refuse to let drivers use their restroom facilities.
To make up for the lack of roadside restaurants, Easom said he stocks up his in-truck refrigerator, but “you get tired of eating lunch meat and peanut butter and jelly.”
He carries plastic jugs for when he can’t find an open restroom, a trick that won’t work for female drivers.
Some drivers and truck stop workers wear masks when they are around others and some don’t, said Brenda Echols, 55, a long-haul driver with JKC Trucking, based in south suburban Summit. Echols said it worries her that so many truckers, who are in contact with so many people from all over the country, are so “lackadaisical.”
Echols said she has noticed people in urban areas are more careful than in rural areas about masks and hand sanitizer.
“We’re part of the supply chain that we worry about so much,” said Echols, who drives between Illinois and Texas. “When you have places that aren’t taking it seriously, it can disrupt that.”
Echols, who often delivers food products like eggs, said she always wears a mask and gloves when she gets out of her truck, and JKC requires masks for drivers whenever they’re around people. She recalls going into an Illinois truck stop recently and someone made a show of coughing, to make fun of her.
“He thought that was funny,” Echols said.
Easom said he sees a range of mask habits among truckers and warehouse workers — some wear masks, some don’t, and some have them dangling about their necks. He said he sees less mask use in Indiana and Michigan than on the East Coast, and admits that he “hates wearing the damn thing.”
But the isolation of sitting behind the wheel of a truck all day may have an upside when it comes to the health crisis.
Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the trade group has been “genuinely surprised” that more truckers have not been getting the virus.
Spencer said it has become easier for drivers to get personal protective equipment than it was in the beginning of the pandemic, with the Federal Emergency Management Administration distributing face masks. Also, truck stops are selling masks and hand sanitizer.
The Centers for Disease Control issued special guidelines for long-haul truckers and their employers. It recommends drivers wear cloth face coverings in public when social distancing is difficult, to regularly wipe down high-touch areas of their trucks, like door handles, and make a plan with their employers and families for what to do if they get sick on the road.
The CDC advises trucking companies to provide masks and other personal protective equipment and information on COVID to employees. The federal agency recommends that employers consider drafting non-punitive emergency sick leave policies if sick leave is not offered. The agency also suggests that employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test result or a doctor’s note for sick drivers to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave or return to work.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were few drive-thru COVID testing sites that could accommodate trucks, making it hard for a driver who got sick on the road to get tested.
More testing sites are allowing truck tractors to come through, but there is a still problem with facilities not taking out-of-area residents, and many truckers are far from home, said Bob Stanton, a Batavia-based long-haul trucker and co-founder of Truckers for a Cause, which focuses on driver health issues.
Stanton, 62, is a Type 2 diabetic on high blood pressure medication who has sleep apnea, and his wife is a Type 1 diabetic. Because of their health concerns, if either got COVID, “it’s probably not going to go well,” Stanton said.
In late March, when it was apparent how serious the pandemic had become, “we had a long, heart-to-heart talk about whether I should go back to work.” They decided they couldn’t afford for him not to go back on the road.
Stanton noted that because most truck drivers don’t have sick pay, they will work while suffering possible coronavirus symptoms.
“They’re contagious and possibly spreading disease the whole time,” Stanton said.
A Chicago-based trucking company fears for the safety of their truck drivers as cities across the country call to defund the police.
JKC Trucking, which serves several fortune 500 companies, will avoid doing business in cities that defund the police due to safety concerns, co-owner and Vice President Mike Kucharski told the Daily Caller.
“The only place that’s technically completely defunded the police is Minnesota, and so far we’re staying clear,” Kucharski said. “We’re staying clear just for the protection of the drivers.”
“When a truck driver is on the road by himself … his real support is the police,” Kucharski said. “And if you defund the police, they’re not gonna have nobody to rely on anymore.”
Transportation incidents accounted for the highest number of workplace-related deaths in 2018, and driver/sales workers and truck drivers had the highest number of workplace-related fatalities compared to any other occupation, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the factors that make truck driving even more dangerous is that a lot of drivers make deliveries early in the morning when it’s still dark, Kucharski said.
A Gendarme (R) walks along transport trucks lined up during a blockade to access to the Frejus tunnel, early on November 21, 2017 close to the border between France and Italy in Modane. About 50 truck drivers were blocking on November 21 the tunnel access, a major traffic route between France and Italy, to protest against the exclusion of road transport from the new European directive on posted workers. (Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP via Getty Images)
Kucharski is concerned that if someone tried to hurt one of his drivers or steal their truck, the driver would have nobody to call.
“What are we supposed to do when we’re in trouble?” he asked. “I mean… somebody wants to hijack the truck? Somebody beats up a driver? You know, hurts my driver? We’re not going to be able to help them, and we’re not going to be able to provide the backup for them to be safe.”
Kucharski said that his drivers have expressed concerns about their safety, some even refusing to go to areas that are experiencing heightened unrest. “I don’t want to put a driver in harm’s way,” he said. “Our number one priority is to keep our drivers safe.”