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.
Aug. 07, 2020 – 5:02 – JKC Trucking owner Mike Kucharski discusses his company’s move to stop delivering to areas protesting and defunding the police, as well as how the coronavirus has impacted trucking jobs.
The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) provided hundreds of billions of dollars for cash-starved businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with many customers idled by government-mandated shutdowns, tens of thousands of trucking companies were among those standing in line for a slice of the PPP funds.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) last month said it had approved 4.9 million loans through the end of June totaling more than $521 billion as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act signed into law last spring.
According to data compiled by CCJ from SBA listings, upwards of 100,000 trucking companies received funds ranging from loans of less than $10 (yes, ten dollars) to some in excess of $5 million. Local and long-haul trucking companies snagged as much as $12 billion, more than 2% of all the PPP cash handed out by banks across the United States. Those listings exclude household goods movers.
More than 60% of fleets responding to a CCJ survey last month that measured the coronavirus’ impact on motor carriers said they had applied for PPP funds, with some carriers noting the money was vital for post-pandemic survival. Likewise, in a recent survey of owner-operators and very small fleets (those with nine trucks or fewer) conducted by CCJ sister publication Overdrive, more than half said they had applied for PPP loans.
The number of loans awarded and the size of those loans show the toll that the coronavirus-spurred downturn had on carriers’ cash flow.
Mike Kucharski, co-owner and vice president of JKC Trucking, the largest refrigerated trucking fleet in the Chicago Metro area, said that without the more than $2 million loan that JKC received via the PPP, his company would have endured layoffs en masse, as the majority of its customer base of bars and restaurants were crippled by stay-at-home orders.
“[The loan] was a Band-Aid, but it was a great Band-Aid,” Kucharski said. “Without that money, we would have to cut pay [and] cut drivers a long time ago.”
Nearly 11,000 trucking companies (10,872), as categorized by SBA’s North American Industry Classification System, received PPP loans for amounts greater than $150,000, according to disclosure documents released by the U.S. Treasury Department and SBA last month.
CCJ graphic by Richard Street
Among the companies receiving $150,000 or more, general freight companies collectively snagged between $3.1 billion and $7.4 billion. Long-haul truckload carriers received between $1.3 billion and $3 billion, leaving between $176.7 million and $411.9 million for less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers and between $1.68 billion and $4 billion for local carriers.
Long-haul specialized fleets altogether received between $371.75 million and $870.7 million, while local specialized carriers received between $658.25 million and $1.6 billion.
With the SBA-backed loan in-hand, JKC Trucking managed to keep all its employees and diversified its business model to add more flexibility.
“Before COVID, we had too much freight,” Kucharski said, noting the company specialized in LTL before adding more truckload business during the pandemic. “We started picking up product where we could to keep the wheels rolling. In the trucking business, there’s a lot of fixed cost. We have to fill that big gap.”
Kucharski used the money for payroll, a condition that should allow the loan to be forgiven. However, administrators continuously amend the rules governing the PPP, and financial institutions have a hard time explaining the evolving conditions to loan holders.
“Even if it doesn’t get forgiven, I think the interest rate they’re going to charge us is a pretty good deal,” Kucharski said. “It’s a win-win scenario for us either way.”
Loans of more than $150,000 represent nearly 75% of total PPP dollars approved, but only a fraction of the number of actual loans. According to SBA, about 87% of all loans totaled less than $150,000. More than 91,000 trucking companies raked in just more than $2.1 billion in loans under $150,000. Texas led the way with $219 million, with California ($180 million) in second. Illinois (more than $164 million) rounded out the Top 3.
John Ganiev, owner of Philadelphia-based Dream Transportation, secured a $50,000 loan when the market receded, and the 200-truck dry van and reefer fleet with mostly owner-operators used the funds to cover payroll after drivers and office staff went home. Ganiev said he is trying to put the remaining funds to work to “generate more money” by hiring more people and investing in equipment and technology to “get back on my feet.”
Pennsylvania trucking companies such as Dream Transportation that received amounts under $150,000 soaked up $76.4 million of the state’s PPP funding. While Ganiev said he doesn’t think the PPP loan is a long-term solution, he is grateful that “it got me out of the hole. I’ve got better cash flow now, and everything is going good.”
Ganiev said he was told by a friend who is an SBA officer that his company may not be required to pay back the loan, adding his friend told him to take the money, use it and, if/when the first payment comes due, pay off the full amount.