Truckers Brave Challenges Worldwide

Issues range from supply chain disruptions to lack of coronavirus protection.

April 07, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Truck drivers transporting food and necessary items are encountering delays around the globe, reports

In Europe, lengthy wait times have resulted from restrictions imposed to control the virus’ spread. In South America, local laws have at times conflicted with countrywide ordinances that deem hauling food an essential service, leaving supplies sometimes stuck in storage. In parts of Africa, a public transportation shut down prevents many drivers from getting to their jobs, and in the U.S., the increased demand for goods has caused loading lags at warehouses.  

In addition, critical services that drivers need have been reduced or even eliminated. It’s difficult to find places to eat because restaurants are shut down and rigs are too big to move through drive-thru lanes. A decent place to sleep, shower or even a clean toilet is becoming difficult to find. Faced with problems, some truckers in places such as Brazil, one of the world’s biggest food exporters, have even refused to take on new trips recently.

These issues reveal the vulnerability of a complicated system that gets goods from farm to table. Almost all food and agricultural products are transported by truck at some point, whether that’s from a field to a grain terminal, a processing plant to a port or from a wholesaler to a store.

“We’ve never had anything of this magnitude and this widespread,” said Derek Leathers, CEO of Werner Enterprises, a transportation and logistics company that operates throughout North America, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. “But we are open for business, and we need to stay that way.”

Bob Stanton, a 62-year-old truck driver with three underlying health conditions, said he’s frightened of catching COVID-19 and only has a half can of disinfectant spray left. Even if he had symptoms of COVID-19, he is unsure of where to go for testing, and he worries about being far from his Illinois home if he does gets sick. Despite that, he rebuffed the idea of using vacation time to ride out the pandemic.

“If I take a couple of weeks’ vacation, you all starve,” said Stanton, a 20-year trucking veteran who had just taken sugar to Memphis, cereal to Chicago and was waiting to be loaded in Batavia, Illinois, for cargo going to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. “I’m out here trying to keep you all fed.”

The severity of the problem depends on location. In the U.S., the challenges are serious, but for the most part, the supply chain is flowing, except for small pockets of slowdowns. Trucks crossing the border from Germany to Poland were seeing wait times of 10 hours or more. In India, vegetable oils are getting stuck at ports due to a shortage of trucks.

Some disruptions have already started to ease as governments work to ensure that food transport is covered under lockdown allowances for essential businesses, and policymakers do more to support truck drivers. Pennsylvania has reopened truck stops after briefly closing them statewide. The European Commission has worked to create “green-lane” crossings at border checks to minimize delays. Special lanes for truckers are also being used in parts of Malaysia.

Businesses are working to help support truckers, too. Some clients are providing drivers with bottled water and snacks to help ease the blow from restaurant closures, said Steve Wells, CEO of Baltimore-based trucking and logistics company Cowan Systems. Plus, U.S. highway traffic is light since most people are staying at home, and trucks are making faster transit times, which helps mitigate the delays for loading and unloading.

Some problems could be more long-lasting though.

Canadian carriers are bringing empty trucks into the U.S. to pick up food items to transport back north, said Stephen Laskowski, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. Normally, those trucks would be filled with manufactured goods from Canada being delivered to the U.S., but that need has dwindled, he said.

Demand for trucks in the U.S. has increased while efficiency has gone down due to longer distances traveled and the empty one-way hauls, which has prompted farm groups to call for relief on rules that restrict driving hours and weights.

In the U.S., professional drivers are asking the Trump Administration for protections during the pandemic, according to Business Insider.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the nation’s largest group of independent drivers, has written to President Trump requesting three safeguards, said Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the organizations. They include:

  • Access to personal protective equipment, like masks
  • Coronavirus testing on truck routes that provide results within hours
  • A place for truck drivers to quarantine or seek treatment if they test positive for the coronavirus

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

There are nearly two million truck drivers in the U.S., and they move around 71% of the nation’s freight by weight. A mass exodus of drivers from the pool—whether by illness or fear of illness—would threaten Americans' abilities to buy groceries, visit the ATM, fill their gas tanks and even to order online.  

"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," Spencer wrote.

As Americans buy more and more cleaning goods and food, and hospitals require faster shipments of medical supplies, the country's trucking network is getting pushed to the limit to ensure that those items are delivered on time, experts say. During the week of March 22, trucking shipments to grocery stores jumped by 81% compared to the same week last year, and by 16% from just the week before, according to freight data company project44.

Meanwhile, truck drivers are at a greater risk than other Americans to get COVID-19. Plus, they are twice as likely to be uninsured as compared to the average American worker, according to a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Paid sick leave is also not a common benefit across many trucking jobs.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.