Federal and state governments, as well as fleets and corporations, are trying their best to keep drivers healthy, rested, clean and fed during the COVID-19 outbreak. But some drivers say not everything is going smoothly.
Reports have surfaced of some warehouses and distribution centers refusing loads depending on where they originated, not allowing drivers to use rest room facilities, or truck stops closing showers and claiming plumbing or septic issues. And there have been issues with various states, notably Pennsylvania and South Carolina, closing rest areas. It's a rapidly changing situation; major truck stop chains told HDT they are keeping showers open, and Pennsylvania re-opened many of its rest areas for truck parking. Another concern is a lack of medical facilities for drivers on the road who may develop symptoms.
At the same time, many drivers feeling a renewed sense of pride in their work and garnering public accolades for the job they’re doing.
A Mixed Bag of Experiences
What things like out on the North American highways seems to depend on who you talk to and where they are on the map.
Desiree Wood, president and founder of the Real Women in Trucking advocacy group and a furloughed driver with Sharp Transit, has used Twitter to highlight several reports of truck stop restrooms and/or showers being closed, as well as shoddy restaurant services in some areas.
Please explain the logic to me of denying Drivers, who spend the majority of their day in solitude, access to restrooms. Virus prevention - Wash Your Hands - but NOT here 🤔— Joyce Hibma (@HibmaJoyce) March 20, 2020
“We’re hearing reports from drivers in some places that they pull into a truck stop, and – coincidentally – it turns out that they’re having plumbing or septic issues with showers or bathrooms,” she says. “And after some asking around, the drivers hear that there are no issues – the problem is that nobody on the janitorial staff at the facility is willing to do any cleaning in those areas while the outbreak is going on.”
via @Truckinmermaid@AldiUSA Adli’s in Valparaiso, Indiana has closed the inside of building making #TruckDrivers wait outside in cold and weather for periods for everything and WILL NOT ALLOW us to even use a bathroom and not even a port a potty provided #supplychain #COVID2019— Desiree (@TruckerDesiree) March 18, 2020
This is what they told her>> pic.twitter.com/6UanJpVS8W— Desiree (@TruckerDesiree) March 19, 2020
Wood said a female trucker – a veteran who switched from her normal flatbed cargo and started pulling a reefer full of foodstuff to help restock depleted store shelves – tried for two days to take a shower and then finally ended up driving back to her home base just to get some rest and clean up. Wood said the driver intends to go back out, but is “stunned” that she can’t perform the basic task of taking a shower and getting clean right now. (HDT attempted to contact this driver to confirm this story but was unable to reach her.)
Wood said she was encouraged by Werner Enterprises President and CEO echoing her tweets on Twitter, confirming the problem and pledging to work to correct issues as they arise.
We continue to actively work with local, state, and federal officials to keep rest areas open AND have successfully reopened the majority of stops that were temporarily closed. We WILL continue to support all drivers as they work to #KeepAmericaMoving !— Derek Leathers (@Derek_Leathers) March 20, 2020
In a statement to HDT, Leathers said that Werner Enterprises "continues to keep the safety and wellbeing of our associates, drivers, and customers at the forefront of everything we do during this challenging time."
Leathers said Werner's partner truck stops have assured the copmany that safe grab-and-go food options will be available, and showers will remain open and sanitized.
"When the rest of the country is being told to stay in place and prepare food at home or use drive-thru service, this is not an option for professional drivers," Leathers said, noting that Werner several years ago began installing inverters on all its new trucks to allow drivers to plug-in coolers and refrigerators. "We are asking drivers to keep several meals on-hand in their trucks. However, when it’s time to replenish that supply, the challenge of parking an 18-wheel truck to shop for food is difficult."
Werner communicates with driver directly through in-cab telematics, and it has established an internal COVID-19 hub where drivers can access information online. "As the current spread of COVID-19 is continually evolving, Werner will provide associates and professional drivers with ongoing education and advice from public health agencies and local authorities as updated information becomes available," the statement continued. "We will continue to monitor and adjust company policies and plan implementations as they become necessary."
Leathers emphasized the role of professional drivers during this time. "Our drivers understand the role they play in keeping America moving, and I’m incredibly proud of their commitment. They remain calm and safe while keeping the supply chain moving."
'Finding bottled water and, yes, toilet paper, is a nightmare right now.'
Bob Stanton, a driver for Heartland Express and a driver sleep/wellness advocate with the group Truckers for a Cause, said that while drivers definitely have a sense of pride being out on the road while other people aren’t working, he said it was virtually impossible to get a hot meal now. “Almost all restaurants are closed now. And that’s tough,” he said. “Because there’s nothing like climbing down from the cab of a truck and getting a hot meal. And although the public is trying to help by offering to go through drive-through windows and place orders for us, that’s not always a realistic option.”
A bigger problem, Stanton said, is the lack of personnel at docks and distribution centers to load or unload trucks quickly. “The problem is that so many people have to stay home and take care of their kids who are now out of school because of the virus,” he explained. “It’s just making things harder for all of us.”
With restaurants closed or too impractical to access, Jeff Barker, a driver for Crete Carrier, said he’s more focused on the difficulties of finding basic living necessities for life on the road – things he’s always taken for granted. “I’m a diabetic,” he said. “So having plenty of bottled water onboard is a necessity for me. And you just can’t find it anywhere right now. All told, it’s just a lot harder to find the things drivers need to sustain yourself when you’re out on the road. So I’m spending a lot my off-duty time scrounging around for those things. Finding bottled water and, yes, toilet paper, is a nightmare right now.”
On the positive side, Barker has noticed that traffic has thinned out quite a bit in the past two weeks. “I went through Denver just yesterday,” he said. “And it’s like a ghost town compared to a normal weekday. So that is making it a lot easier for us to get around and keep moving with our loads.” Barker said he hasn’t seen any problems with closed showers, bathrooms or other facilities. “I’m sure it’s going on,” he said. “But I would say those are very isolated incidents. I’ve not seen any evidence of that at all.”
But certainly, Barker said, the public at large seems to appreciate the sacrifices he and his fellow drivers are making. “I’m getting a lot more ‘blow your air horn’ pumps than I usually do,” he said. “And a lot of non-driving friends have reached out on social media to thank – and, by extension – other drivers for the job we’re doing. But I take that with a grain of salt. Once this crisis is over, things will probably go back to the way they’ve always been."
As long as people need food on their shelves, Truckers are “heroes “. Will they feel that way after the #Covid19 crisis is over? Will they remember their heroes?— Allen Smith (@askthetrucker) March 19, 2020
We may need to remind them.
OOIDA and ATA Weigh In
Both the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent letters to President Trump detailing the situation on the highways and calling for action on several key points.
On the hours-of-service exemption issued by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, both groups asked for more clarity. "Guidelines that make clear the role of shipping necessities by truck will ensure smooth resupply and delivery," ATA said.
"We are concerned this confusion will only grow as more commodities are deemed essential," OOIDA said. "With the exception of the 10-hour mandatory rest period between loads, the federal government should lift HOS requirements for all freight."
OOIDA is also calling for a cessation of law enforcement roadside checks and weigh station waivers for qualified drivers to expedite freight movement:
Both associations called on the federal government to discourage states from closing rest areas and other truck parking facilities, while encouraging them to reopen any locations shuttered during the emergency. As ATA pointed out, "Commercial drivers have temporary relief from hours-of-service regulations, but they must manage fatigue as they respond to this emergency, and rest stops are an irreplaceable component, along with commercial truck stops."
"States must also be encouraged to open weigh stations, inspection facilities and other sites for truck parking to ensure the safety of professional drivers and motorists," OOIDA said.
As state governments shut down "non-essential" offices such as motor vehicle departments, questions arise about expiring CDLs and medical certificates. ATA asked the administration to "support the ability of the trucking industry to continue to provide critical services by providing alternatives for drivers who need to renew or obtain commercial drivers licensing credentials."
Following up on Oregon’s move on March 20 to extend the grace period for drivers needing to file updated medical card, OOIDA noted that "the suspension of many federal and state operations and closure of important facilities has made this extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many truckers. The federal government must implement at least a 90-day extension of expiring medical cards and commercial driver’s licenses that are in good standing. Random drug and alcohol testing of drivers must also be suspended for at least 90 days or until truckers again have the means to fully comply."
Both groups expressed concern about driver's health on the road. ATA asked that the government "provide guidance for the health of all drivers, including possible testing for COVID-19." OOIDA also asked the government to take steps to ensure drivers have access to virus testing while on the road.
In addition, OOIDA is calling for the federal government to force shippers, receivers and the logistics community at large to treat drivers with basic human decency. Truckers are reporting many shippers and receivers are forbidding them from using on-site restroom facilities, it said. "The federal government must work with the logistics community to ensure truckers have access to restrooms. ... 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."
For now, drivers are keeping freight moving. Even as the country they’re crisscrossing slowly withdraws from normalcy into a strange new world dominated by the COVID-19 virus.