Just months after being caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic, fleets in Canada’s trucking capital remain bullish as they begin to navigate the long road out of the Covid-19 crisis.
“We definitely didn’t have any idea how Covid-19 was going to come down on us,” said Vik Gupta, executive vice-president at the Roadies Group, a carrier based in the Region of Peel.
Gupta said Roadies business declined 15% to 20% during the early stages of the pandemic, a drop he called “marginal”.
“Most of our customers deal with food and beverages. So, we were able to keep the wheel rolling.”
Peace Transportation and Load Solutions Inc. too were unprepared for Covid-19 and its aftermath.
“Our company does have a plan to deal with emergency situations like workplace injury, fire or natural calamity. But Covid-19 has probably caught everyone flat-footed,” said Bisharat Ahmed, CEO of Peace Transportation.
The company, which mainly transports fresh produce and other refrigerated items between Ontario and U.S. states, was not affected by factory closures, but faced another challenge:
“The drivers were reluctant to cross the border and do U.S. runs due to the rapidly worsening situation there.”
“Instead, they stayed home and applied for government benefits,” he said.
Randeep Sandhu, president of Load Solutions, a division of LSI World, recalled the “confusion” of early days.
He said the company followed government guidelines all the way.
Sandhu said Load Solutions was hit hard during April and May, but it didn’t have to lay off any drivers.
“They just didn’t want to work.”
Back to normal
All three executives said business has rebounded since Ontario and other provinces started reopening.
That assessment is consistent with analysis from other stakeholders. For example, Statistics Canada’s latest Labor Force Survey showed that the employment of truck drivers rose 7% from June to July, much faster than expected.
Carriers across Canada have also reported a surge in demand for drivers, especially cross-border truckers.
And in early September, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said the number of truck drivers entering the country rose by 7,500 to 110,507 during Aug. 31-Sept. 6, up more than 7% from the comparable period last year.
“Yes, we are hiring drivers for our U.S. runs based on the requirement,” said Ahmed of Peace Transportation.
Load Solutions is also hiring.
As for Roadies, it never stopped recruiting, even at the height of the pandemic.
“In fact, we hired more than 15 drivers during that time,” said Gupta.
Unlike many carriers, the three fleets did not apply for any government relief aid.
Transportation and warehousing companies are eligible to apply for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which in June-July supported 59,000 workers in the sector.
That is down from 135,000 in May-June and 170,000 in April-May, suggesting the resilience of the industry.
Gupta is bullish about the business because he sees a positive vibe in the industry.
“Roadies aims to come back with full force and gain the lost business,” he said.
“We will stay focused and add new contracts.”
Sandhu also believes the outlook is bright, at least for the short term. He said it could take at least a year to return to the pre-Covid levels.
Sandhu, however, is not waiting for the industry to recover fully to make new investment, investment he believes will have a big positive impact on the driver lifestyle.
He said Load Solutions is aiming to establish a network of state-of-the-art, strategically located terminals to improve the flow of freight, and thereby enhance driver experience.
Other plans include an optimized business model that would allow drivers to spend more time with their families.
Ahmed believes much will depend on the availability of a vaccine against Covid-19.
“We are assuming that once a vaccine is available, the trucking industry will be able go back to its full capacity,” he said.
Ahmed also expressed concern about the current cut-throat freight rates.
“The rates should be competitive enough to survive in this industry.”
Covid-19 has also sparked in a surge in cyber attacks.
Canpar Express, a subsidiary of trucking giant TFI International was targeted in a recent ransomware attack, showing no company is immune from hacking.
Cybersecurity experts have urged fleets to take proactive measures and deploy a cyber incident response plan to avoid any costly surprises.
Sandhu said Load Solutions was in compliance, with a top-notch IT team safeguarding its servers.
Peace is also taking precautions.
“We are continuously monitoring and watching our web-based telematics such as ELDs, live tracking software and cameras to verify that everything is working properly.”
Gupta said Roadies doesn’t have any incident response plan, but its operations are well-guarded.
By Abdul Latheef