Essential: Trucker stories from the Covid-19 fight

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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, 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, 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, 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 Associated Grocers warehouse is working around the clock to keep up with demand.

“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
Jamie Hagen, Hell Bent Cpress

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
Lyoness Woodstock truck driver Erb
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
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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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • Hi
    It is great that everybody is so thankful for what we are doing bu we would greatly appreciate if somebody would make handsanitizer and facemasks available to us so we can do our job safely.
    We also have families and homes to go back to and none would like to bring Covid back home.

  • I am a truck driver out of Concord Ontario. A female truck driver . And finding it hard to make it threw the day . No restrooms . Yesterday I walked threw a drive through to get a coffee . . Please allow drivers to use washrooms. So we don’t have to pee on the side of the road

  • Thanks to the people at McDonald’s in London Ontario, by Wellington and Wilton Grove, serving the Transport drivers through their side window. Though,the doors were closed. Special thanks to the lady that refused to take payment for my coffee and bagel.

  • I am a long haul truck driver and I run back and forth to the us. I have noticed a little bit more appreciation for what we do. I work for Cooney Transport and we are celebrating 75 years this year. I think it would be a great story with now the 3rd generation running the show.

  • Keep truck stops open for truckers only . Leave access for truckers only . Limit how many can sit in . Give our truckers meals they deserve , washrooms they can use . They deserve far better then pot a potties . Show how much we appreciate them . And most of all , remember when all is said and done . It was our truckers that saved us . Don’t just respect them now , always keep in mind , what they’ve done . Keep them feed with hot meals. Bless the truckers .

  • To quote Lyoness, “Two weeks ago we were recognized as a necessary evil. My, how quickly things have changed.”
    You guys & ladies are the true unsung heroes, working in the background to keep our society going. Without your courage & your efforts, we would be in a very grim situation indeed.
    A big thank you & God Bless you to all of you!

  • Truckers rock! Great job to all of of you ,transport and swappers couldn’t live with out your hard work

  • My opinion is that, the Transport companies should provide to they’re drivers basic equipment to keep rolling.
    1. Gloves
    2. Masks
    3. Sanitizer.
    Everywhere I just hear that truck driver keeping economy running and they are the heroes of the day but no one will add more cents per mile in these days and not will care about the safety of these upfront workers.

  • I’m a truck mechanic still working on equipment every day. I just wish people would have consideration for others by coughing into thier sleeves. Plus some drivers get too close while I’m working on equipment.

  • Hi, not sure if this will help with the sanitizer issue, but Steinhart Distillery gave me this # 1-902-863-5530 and said if you give them a call they might be able to help.

  • “A necessary evil” is right. I appreciate the appreciation today but where were you yesterday and will you appreciate me tomorrow? Enjoy spending my money on your holiday and remember truckers used to be paid the same as teachers.

  • Yes I drive aswell . Was on my way back from Calgary on the 23 rd of march and made a stop were I normally stop in sicamoose bc . And went to you the bathroom facilities . And was told there are not for use. So I heated up my dinner . And stood by my truck to relieved my self as people are driving by . Yes we cater to truckers . But I do not see that in anywhere in bc because of the whole world living in fear . So you can only pack so many days worth of food in your truck. What next . The signs of the end times that have been prophesied. They are here. Get used to it . All we can do is keep goin
    Hoping we can get a meal some were along the line . A guy can only eat a n w so much . To all my brothers on the rd ve strong . And God bless you all and give you peace to do the jobs we enjoy doing . Gord

  • It’s funny how we all come together in a crisis
    Last night I pulled over at a husky in prince George to use the bathroom and to get a coffee
    When i got back in my rig to leave i couldn’t move
    I was sitting on ice. Needless to say I had to call
    a tow truck. But before that I had a lot of people trying to help me, including our friends from India. So let’s get off the racial bullshit and start working together. It will be for a better work environment. My name is Eldo Coradazzo. I work for Dolphin Delivery.

  • I have found that since all this has started the truck driver is being treated unfairly by the public and ,they are treating us like we are the carrier.
    Trying to find places to shower and rest room places to use.
    I have delivered food stuffs they want the food but shun the driver.

    I guess this is the new way of life for us it was nothing like this 30 years ago

    • You said that perfect. We’re being treated like the carrier. In truth we are less likely to get it. For the most part we have very little interaction (contact) with others during the day. I’m curious about how many drivers have gotten it. Asked my dispatcher today if any of our drivers had it. Was told some had been tested but all came back negative. This would be a good article to write on! Maybe when they realize we’re not the carrier, they’ll open some washrooms. Doesn’t bother me though, helps keep me from getting from them!

  • I recently returned from Florida to Ontario
    The 3 hotels we stayed at were basically empty
    Why doesn’t the trucking association approach hotel chains like HILTON to provide a free bed and shower for a night for this lifeline

  • i was at a shipper on 7/27 a driver came down with covin 19 i was informed today by my safety department i need to be tested im otr driver i dont know what to do all the testing facilities are set up for cars and not trucks

  • In spite of it, some places would not accept a walk up at the drive through.
    I encountered a driver from the US who asked if I knew where he could grab some food. Told him the places that were still open and he had tried them only to be told no walk ups. He pointed to his truck and was told, Sorry, managers orders”.
    He had been delayed in getting home and ran out of food.
    I gave him some canned goods from my truck to get him home. He offered to pay but I declined. I hope if I ever get in a jam, someone will help me out and just asked him to pass along the kindness.
    The places that declined to help him are off my list now as well.