TORONTO, Ont. – In the fight against Covid-19, trucking is an “essential service”. While other people are asked to stay home, truck drivers and their support teams are asked to stay on the job and keep society rolling.
This is one in a series of articles that will share stories from the front lines of this work.
“The roads are less traveled. The urban centers, such as Chicago, are like ghost towns.”– Ritch Thiessen, Erb Transport
Ritch Thiessen was hauling a load of kitty litter to Portland, Oregon as the satellite messages fed him with information on the border and customer requirements relating to Covid-19. The backhaul came in the form of frozen strawberries for the return trip through Windsor, Ont.
“The roads are less traveled. The urban centers, such as Chicago, are like ghost towns,” the Erb Transport driver says.
It’s not the only thing to change. Some truck stops don’t offer sit-down dining areas anymore. “Some don’t have showers. Some don’t allow us to use the restroom or laundry facilities,” he says.
The biggest challenges he’s encountering are back home, though. “The store limits the number of water jugs I can buy, so I have to make multiple trips. Interacting with my family is very difficult,” he explains.
But he knows the general public appreciates the work.
“I am overwhelmed by the gratitude of the general public towards all the frontline workers including truck drivers.”
“Somebody has got to do it, and I’m part of a big group who cares for others.”– Rene Robert, owner-operator
Rene Robert, an owner-operator with Trappers Transport, is helping to stock plenty of shelves with fresh food. Last week there was a container filled with fresh pork, heading from Neepawa, Manitoba to Deltaport, B.C. The final destination for the load was Japan.
But things have changed when loads arrive.
“Shippers don’t want us in their building. Instead, they bring us the paperwork to the truck, and we have to stay in our truck.”
He worries that news reports are scaring people into doing “silly, stupid things”, especially when it comes to hoarding food. Would-be thieves – who Robert describes as “unscrupulous idiots” – have already tried to break in to a few of his company’s trailers.
The fleet now requires drivers to avoid non-secure truck stops, or from parking at the side of B.C. roads.
“I kind of feel nonchalant about this serious situation and I will not lose sleep over it,” he says. “I’m leaving again tomorrow for Vancouver, and I go with the hope that the sun will shine again soon for everyone. Somebody has got to do it, and I’m part of a big group who cares for others.”
“I have never seen anything like it. Stores that normally take nine pallets of goods a week now want 25 or more with empty shelves.”– Keith McMurdo, owner-operator
Keith McMurdo has stocked plenty of store shelves over the years. He’s an owner-operator with Associated Grocers in Calgary, and specializes in supplying small and mid-sized grocery stores from Saskatchewan to B.C.
It’s been a scramble to keep up with the demand.
“I have never seen anything like it,” says the 44-year veteran. “Stores that normally take nine pallets of goods a week now want 25 or more … When my truck shows up, customers start moving in and hoard the new stock again.”
“The warehouse is working 24 hours a day trying to keep up, and the trailers are loaded to the max,” he says. Trailers that would normally hold six deliveries will now carry only two. Small mom-and-pop grocery stores are also receiving the loads in the middle of the night, and handing drivers some meals as thanks.
“I have to say a big ‘thank you’ to the businesses that still allow you to use the washroom and purchase food at the counter,” he adds, referring to the A&W in Bonnyville, Alberta, and Basha Donair at the truck stop in Nisku, Alberta.
“My biggest fear is I’m putting myself at risk and will most likely get this virus.”– Jamie Hagen, Hell Bent Xpress
Jamie Hagen of Hell Bent Xpress, an owner-operator who hauls food-grade liquids between the U.S. and Canada, is widely known for promoting fuel economy and business practices. But at a time of Covid-19, he admits that something else is on his mind.
“My biggest fear is I’m putting myself at risk and will most likely get this virus,” he says. “Hopefully I don’t have an adverse reaction.”
“Who would have ever thought of trucking in such an essential way? Two weeks ago we were recognized as a necessary evil.”– Lyoness Woodstock, Erb Transport
Erb Transport driver Lyoness Woodstock has seen a quick shift in attitudes about trucking as North America fights Covid-19.
“Who would have ever thought of trucking in such an essential way?” he asks. “Two weeks ago we were recognized as a necessary evil. My, how quickly things have changed.”
Attitudes haven’t been the only things to shift. Shippers and receivers are changing procedures, opening specific areas to just one or two trucks at a time, increasing the space allowed between vehicles, and raising questions about health and travel history. At the border, U.S. Customs officers wouldn’t take any of his papers until he answered questions about his health and travel as well.
Woodstock hauled food and medical products around New York, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec last week. This week he’ll be running from Ontario to Michigan.
Traffic has certainly been lighter, though. He traveled through Toronto and Montreal without dipping below 100 km/h. That usually isn’t possible.
“I personally have not experienced any great challenges,” he says. “It is a mindset that I have to be diligent about how I do my job, and do my best to keep from contracting the virus. [They’re] likely great practices to maintain well after this crisis is over anyway.”
Canadians are realizing the importance of a secure an uninterrupted supply chain, Woodstock adds, but he also stresses the need to thank more than drivers.
“The dispatchers, planners, and the administrators that keep the paper and information flowing. The mechanics who ensure the equipment is ready to go. The dock personnel that load and unload our products. The fuel guys. The tire guys who are at the ready, always,” he says, listing off several examples.
“Our families at home who send us off with a supply of food, clean clothes, their prayers and their love – not knowing when or how we will return home to them.”
When the crisis is over, he hopes people will remember the work that was accomplished.
“I hope when this is over and the world gets back to what we see as normal, that we all remember just how important each and everyone is to our own existence,” he says.
“One lady had closed early but had left her door open, and she was kind enough to warm me up a hot sandwich.”– Doug McGowan, Westcan Bulk Transport
Most of Doug McGowan’s loads of propane have been destined for the ski hills of southern B.C. this winter, but the Covid-19 outbreak ended that demand a month early – despite this season’s record snowfalls.
The truck stop facilities began to shut down while he was on the road.
“I plan certain stops on the road to augment my packed meals,” he says. “Once things started closing, I really wanted to keep my meals in reserve and see what I could get on the road still. The help was excellent. One lady had closed early but had left her door open, and she was kind enough to warm me up a hot sandwich. Another owner had his drive-thru and counter open, and thanked me for what I was doing and for coming in.
“I thanked him back just as warmly.”
Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure personnel and RCMP in southern B.C. have also set up support stops for truckers, complete with snacks and sandwiches, he says.
But McGowan has a few other ideas that could help. Porta-potties at any locations that have closed their usual bathroom access would be a start. Pylons could also be set out at drive-thrus to make it safer for truck drivers who are walking up to the drive-thru windows for their meals.
He says Keenan Advantage Group and Westcan Bulk Transport have both been prepared and open with their communication since the Covid-19 outbreak began. Contact with shippers, plant staff, office staff, and service shops has all been locked down.
“I have an extensive driver network, and I’ll say they are a bunch of positive folks,” McGowan says, adding a message to “all the drivers that keep this continent rolling.”
“Keep it strong out there.”
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