With nearly 30 years of traversing the black ribbons of the nation’s roadways, sequestered in her metal cab, long-haul trucker Dee Sova is well versed in self-isolation. But as she logs extended hours hauling goods for others, her own bottle of hand sanitizer is almost gone. So she has a message for anxious Americans.
“Things are running out because people are hoarding,” Sova told NBC News. “On behalf of American truckers, slow down, people. Just get enough for a few days for your family. Another truck is coming. We’re coming. The truckers are coming, people!”
Truckers sent a direct appeal to President Donald Trump for help with access to personal protective equipment, quick-turnaround coronavirus tests and a strategy for treatment or quarantine if needed.
“Small-business truckers and professional drivers are the vital link to it all, putting their lives on the line for the good of the nation,” Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, wrote in a letter to Trump and the White House coronavirus task force.
“Their hard work and personal sacrifice should not include their health or even their lives if at all possible or preventable,” Spencer wrote. “Once word spreads that drivers are testing positive, we could very well see a tremendous reduction in drivers willing to risk everything for the rest of us.”
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On top of the risks to their safety, truckers — the backbone of the nation’s shipping infrastructure — are being whipsawed economically. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the logistics industry like a hurricane draped across the entire country, leading to spikes in demand in every locality all at once. Suppliers and shippers have had to quickly pivot operations to deal with changed consumer behaviors, as all of a sudden many households are buying for several weeks at a time.
“When this [pandemic] started, capacity was sucked up by the big shippers,” said Ken Adamo, chief of analytics for DAT, an online freight marketplace. In early March, a surge of available truckers left the spot market, where short-term orders to pick up freight are made.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the logistics industry like a hurricane draped across the entire country, leading to spikes in demand in every locality all at once.
With consumers still packing their pantries and emptying shelves across the country, the rates operators are getting paid jumped by 13 percent, according to DAT’s data. That attracted some owners away from the contract market back into the spot market, including “dark capacity” from part-timers drawn back for the windfall.
But with nonessential businesses freezing operations, there has been a plunge in freight orders for other goods, making it hard for drivers and logistics brokers to stitch together profitable runs. Some truckers have had to drive empty for 200 to 300 miles to get their next shipments, risking losing money the more miles they drive.
Goods are already arriving from Asia, spring shipping season is coming, and produce shipping begins in July. But the period in between is unknown. There has been no comparable event in history on which to construct a model. For now, open roads with fewer cars and the gratitude of consumers help the miles go by a little easier.
“This is an aging demographic, who are more at risk. We’re thankful these people are willing to risk their health to make sure essential goods get from point A to point B,” Adamo said.
After hours on the road, human contact has also almost disappeared for truckers. Customers now ask truckers to stay in their cabs and not to use their waiting rooms or restrooms. From Pennsylvania to Texas to Michigan, state-run rest stops — trusted way stations for weary truckers — have shut down. Other states have ordered restaurants to close or curtail their hours, and some have switched to grab-and-go only.
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Rural families with large yards have offered spaces where truckers can park. In Washington state, hit hard by the outbreak, Eric Hansen successfully petitioned local leaders to turn a closed high school in Woodland into a rest station for truckers. It has free food and coffee donated from restaurants, ample parking in the empty parking lot and hot showers for men and women in the locker rooms.
“The ones that have come are blown away, almost to tears,” Hansen said.
Truckers — who already use their cabs as mobile offices and campers — are making even more meals in their cabs, not to mention taking sponge baths and being resourceful to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
“I’ve got a roll of paper towels. I’m wearing gloves issued by the company. I wash my hands, face and clean the door handles. It’s 24/7. You can’t get anyone sick.”
“In my cab I have aloe with rubbing alcohol,” said Steve Thorkildsen, 53, a home and commercial oil truck driver based in Seattle. “My daughter made a big batch. It’s sun lotion with rubbing alcohol. I use that every time I enter or leave the cab. I wipe things down. I’ve got a roll of paper towels. I’m wearing gloves issued by the company. I wash my hands, face and clean the door handles. It’s 24/7. You got family at home, you can’t get anyone sick.”
He’s also making sure to practice social distancing. That can be a little harder when lonely customers stuck at home wander over for a chat.
“They always come from behind and startle me,” he said. “I’ve turned into a recluse. You can wave. I don’t want any conversation face to face.”
For consumers used to being able to buy whatever they want whenever they want, the sight of bare shelves and lines out stores has been a wake-up call.
“They’re so used to going into the grocery store and everything that they need is there, or shopping for clothes and everything that they need is there. But they don’t understand the whole process of the supply chain. Those things were there because there was a shipper that had a product,” Sova said.
“We are the lifeline of America, and this is America’s chance to actually see that unfold right before their eyes,” she said.