Truckers warn supply chain in jeopardy if they don't get better COVID-19 protection

©The Kansas City Star

A sign along Interstate 70 west of Kansas City. - JUDY L. THOMAS/Kansas City Star/TNS

America’s supply chain could be in jeopardy if the government doesn’t act swiftly to help protect the country’s truckers, some industry officials and drivers are warning.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its devastation across the U.S., they say, truckers are hauling into COVID-19 hot spots every day with no protective equipment, testing capabilities or ways to self-quarantine or seek treatment if they become sick.

“HELP — MAYDAY — 9-1-1,” are the words in all caps across the top of a letter the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent to President Donald Trump on Friday.

“Urgent and immediate action is demanded to safeguard our nation’s supply chain,” said the letter, signed by Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Grain Valley-based organization. “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.”

Truckers are exposed to COVID-19 because of the critical service they provide, Spencer said.

“They run in and out of the hot zones and without question they are exposed,” he said. “They don’t have access to PPE or any practical means to know when they may be falling ill or any practical solution if they need treatment or self-isolation.”

Drivers need access to testing, Spencer said, along with a strategy for treatment or self-quarantine that could take place at nearby motels.

“Right now professional drivers are busting their butts to care for the nation,” he said. “Their hard work and personal sacrifice should not include their health or even their lives if at all possible or preventable.”

Once word spreads that drivers are testing positive, he said, “we could very well see a tremendous reduction in drivers willing to risk everything for the rest of us.”

“We need a plan for them. We need help. Do it.”

The nation’s truckers for weeks have been scrambling to deliver food and critically needed supplies from coast to coast. But they’ve faced increasing challenges as the virus has spread. With most of the country now under stay-at-home orders, decent meals are hard to come by and they struggle to find parking spots for sleeping and even places to use the restroom or wash their hands. All while performing a job that puts them at an increased risk of contracting the virus.

These are unprecedented times in the freight industry, a Teamsters official said in an update to members last week.

“Unfortunately, it appears that things are going to get worse before they get better,” said Teamsters National Freight Division Director Ernie Soehl. “We have seen a few terminals this week where an employee tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”

At one terminal, Soehl said, a lower-level supervisor tested positive and the terminal was temporarily shut down while it was disinfected.

“There are, however, approximately 18 members and six non-bargaining unit employees who had been in contact with that supervisor, and they have now been placed on a mandatory 14-day quarantine,” he said. “That terminal has since reopened. At another location with a different company, the terminal was also temporarily closed, disinfected and affected employees similarly placed into quarantine status.”

In all cases, Soehl said, the appropriate governmental authorities were promptly notified.

Monte Wiederhold, an Ohio trucker who owns a small fleet, said concerns about coronavirus exposure are constantly on drivers’ minds.

“Obviously, it’s an issue to think about,” he said. “I’ve stressed to all my guys to exercise proper hygiene as much as possible, make sure they’ve got hand sanitizers. We’re keeping our distance from the forklift operators, things like that.”

Wiederhold keeps a container of anti-bacterial wipes next to the door in his cab so he can clean his hands after loading, unloading and filling out paperwork. But trying to find places to more thoroughly clean up or use the restroom is getting harder all the time, he said.

“One of my drivers went to Pennsylvania this week on Interstate 70 right outside of Wheeling, W.V., and the Welcome Center was blocked off with no truck parking,” he said. “These are really just basic human decencies that we should have. We shouldn’t have to beg for these things. We’re trying to keep the lights on and the doors open.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last week praised truckers and said the agency stands ready to build on actions it already has taken to help them through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t think many Americans think about the supply chain much during ordinary times,” she said in an interview with Transport Topics, “but now that phrase — the supply chain — is being talked about everywhere. So many more people now understand that it’s due to truckers and trucking companies that food shelves in a supermarket get stocked, or that gasoline stations are able to sell gasoline.”

On Friday, the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration took action aimed at helping truckers find meals along their routes. The agency notified state transportation departments that it was suspending a law that prohibits commercial activity in interstate highway rest areas. That means commercial food trucks will now be allowed in those areas.

“The nation is experiencing extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances due to the current COVID-19 national public health emergency, in which states have been forced to close restaurants and other available food service accommodations, including in Interstate highway rest areas,” the notice said.

“FHWA recognizes that in those states food trucks may provide vital sustenance for interstate commercial truck drivers and others who are critical to the nation’s continued ability to deliver needed food and relief supplies to the communities impacted by the economic disruptions and healthcare strains caused by COVID-19.”

That’s good news, truckers say, but just trying to outrun the virus is their biggest concern right now.

“Waiting for the virus to spread through the trucking industry,” one wrote on Facebook last week.

Added another: “I’m just afraid as sneaky as this little bugger is, it’s gonna sneak up on us.”

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)