Last month, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new requirements in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has killed nearly 700,000 people in the United States.
Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop an emergency rule requiring all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure workers are vaccinated or else tested once a week.
Why? Unvaccinated people overwhelmingly account for new cases, serious infections, and deaths. A recent study showed hospitalization rates among unvaccinated adults were 17 times higher than among those fully vaccinated. In some areas, hospitals are overwhelmed and turning away patients with other life-threatening conditions. Some of those have died waiting for an ICU bed.
However, larger trucking companies, even those that have been working to get as many drivers and other employees vaccinated as possible, are concerned about what these new rules will mean.
The logistics of getting truck drivers, especially long-haul drivers, vaccinated (or tested weekly), are daunting. Vaccines, at least, are a one- or two-time thing, depending on the vaccine. Some truckstops have even been holding vaccine clinics. But weekly testing? Companies would have to route drivers to someplace they could get tested every week. You can’t stop the hours-of-service clock for a driver to take a COVID test. Labs offering testing typically don’t provide truck parking.
Then there’s the fear that drivers will flock to smaller companies that won’t be subject to the mandate.
There seems to be little rhyme or reason for an emergency order that only affects large companies. If you want to address COVID-19 as a health danger in the workplace, wouldn’t it make more sense to mandate vaccines or testing for all companies? Or to apply it based on the number of people working in a specific location rather than total employees? A former OSHA administrator told Time magazine that limiting the vaccination and testing rule to larger businesses has no precedence in past guidelines.
But will drivers truly leave large carriers in droves rather than getting a shot in the arm?
Surveys have shown that as many as half of unvaccinated workers say they will leave their jobs if they’re forced to get the vaccine. In reality, few actually do, according to The Conversation, a nonprofit that reports on academic research.
It’s easy to tell a pollster, or for a driver to post something on social media, that you’ll quit your job. It’s harder once you actually face a decision that affects your paycheck. We saw a similar trend in the lead-up to the mandate of electronic logging devices. Lots of drivers and owner-operators said they’d leave the industry rather than have that kind of big brother on their backs. But few of them actually quit.
And there are things fleets can do.
That article from The Conversation echoes what I heard in off-the-record conversations with fleet safety executives. It recommended building trust with employees and making it as easy as possible to get vaccinated. And research shows it helps if companies use trusted messengers, such as doctors, colleagues and family, to share information on the vaccine.
J.B. Hunt, for instance, has offered COVID-19 vaccines at its corporate campus and provided a vaccine finder for those in other locations. The company made four hours of special vaccine paid time off available to get vaccinated. And in a Facebook video, employees shared their personal stories of why they got the vaccine.
Communication is vital to help combat misinformation. People who are mistrustful of the general media or the government may feel more comfortable with your company’s own data. And personal stories of employees who have experienced severe COVID or lost a friend or family member might have greater impact than impersonal numbers.
Above all, drivers need to believe that, mandate or not, you truly care for their health and well-being.
This editorial commentary was first published in the October 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.