Always essential

COVID-19 outbreak shines light on how integral truckers are to everyday life.

May 2020

Mark Schremmer

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Addressing the nation, President Donald Trump singled out truck drivers as he thanked Americans serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers, such as Rep. Peter DeFazio, hailed truckers as “heroes.”

Restaurants and the general public went out of their way to make sure truck drivers had plenty to eat.

Posts on Twitter marked with #ThankATrucker went viral. Memes and videos depicting truckers in a positive light circulated the internet.

As the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the nation’s health and economy in March and April, the necessity of truck drivers became all the more clear. Suddenly, such terms as “supply chain” snuck their way into everyday conversation, leading to the realization that without truck drivers the chain is broken.

Truckers risked their own health to make sure hospitals received such necessary shipments as ventilators and surgical masks. They traveled otherwise abandoned highways to keep the grocery shelves stocked and provide millions of Americans confined to their houses a bit of peace of mind as they watched the food in their refrigerator and pantry dwindle each day.

While there should have never been any doubt, the coronavirus reminded the world that truck drivers are essential. Without truck drivers, the world as we know it can’t function.

The recognition and newfound appreciation is refreshing, but the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association doesn’t want it to evaporate when the pandemic does.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on April 6, OOIDA asked them to remember how vital truck drivers are even after this national emergency fades into the rearview mirror.

“As our country continues to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, members of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have been on the front lines of response and recovery efforts – delivering critical supplies to communities across the country,” OOIDA wrote in a letter signed by President and CEO Todd Spencer. “OOIDA represents 160,000 small-business truckers and professional drivers, who have sacrificed their own well-being to keep our country healthy, safe and productive.

“In reality, our nation’s truck drivers do this on a daily basis. They were delivering important medical supplies, groceries and manufacturing materials long before COVID-19 and will continue to do so long after the U.S. has recovered from the current crisis. Unfortunately, it has taken a global pandemic for the media, the general public and Congress to truly appreciate everything they do.”

In the letter to Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, OOIDA reminded the lawmakers that truck drivers have always been essential workers who make sacrifices for America.

“It won’t be long before COVID-19 is a distant memory for many Americans,” Spencer wrote. “Eventually, the media will move on to the next big story. The public will turn its attention to the return of baseball, concerts, dining out and commuting to work. But truckers will still be hauling freight across the country, away from their families and the comforts of home, while saddled with excessive taxes, regulatory burdens, poor working conditions, low wages, and a forgotten appreciation from the American people.”

OOIDA said that the time is now for lawmakers to back up their “thank yous” by addressing the issues that negatively affect the nation’s truck drivers.

“Lawmakers have been quick to express their appreciation for truckers, but professional drivers can’t afford to have you think praise is a sufficient response to their hard work,” Spencer wrote. “While those accolades are important, now is the time to address issues that have plagued truckers for decades. Now is the time to show them that you truly care. Now is the time for action.”

Add truck parking

The first step, OOIDA said, is to provide truck drivers with a safe place to park. In March, OOIDA worked with Reps. Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Angie Craig, D-Minn., to introduce the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act. The bill, HR6104, would authorize $755 million for truck parking over five years.

“The lack of truck parking has been its own national crisis for far too long, and matters have been made worse by COVID-19, as states, localities and individual facilities further limit parking options for truckers,” Spencer wrote. “The lack of truck parking is a complex problem, but HR6104 is a simple first step toward improving conditions for drivers.”

Modernize hours of service

For two years, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has worked toward providing truck drivers flexibility within the hours-of-service regulations.

In March, FMCSA sent an hours of service final rule to the White House for review. OOIDA asked Congress to support FMCSA’s plan.

“In response to COVID-19, many hours-of-service requirements have been waived or relaxed to expedite the movement of freight  without much (if any) opposition from elected officials,” Spencer wrote. “Yet, when truckers advocate for slightly more flexibility in hours-of-service standards, they are often met with strong resistance on Capitol Hill. Drivers have been telling Congress for years they need relief from existing hours-of-service requirements, because they are overly rigid and counterproductive. Truckers shouldn’t just get this relief when the nation needs help responding to an emergency.”

Address detention time

OOIDA told lawmakers that excessive detention time reduces drivers’ wages while slowing down the movement of freight and leading to increased risk of crashes.

“Many drivers spend countless unpaid on-duty hours being detained due to the inefficiency of others within the supply chain,” Spencer wrote. “Unfortunately, these unchecked inefficiencies are also likely preventing emergency supplies from being delivered as quickly as possible today. In these times where speed is demanded, the problem is even worse. Creating a financial incentive for shippers and receivers to improve the loading and unloading of trucks would likely help reduce excessive detention while ensuring drivers are being appropriately paid no matter the circumstances.”

OOIDA said it strongly supports publicizing expected loading, unloading and delay times at individual locations to incentivize shippers and receivers to improve their operations.

Repeal overtime exemption

Truck drivers put in long hours and often spend weeks or months away from home at a time. However, most truckers are paid only when the wheels are turning. Pay-by-the-mile systems mean truckers aren’t compensated for any of their nondriving time.

To remedy this, OOIDA asked lawmakers to repeal the overtime exemption for employee drivers in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“The average truck driver works 60-70 hours per week, which is rarely  if ever  reflected in their compensation,” Spencer wrote. “Instead, they should be paid for all the work they do, not just the time they spend driving. Many drivers are working longer hours during the COVID-19 crisis but have little to show for their extraordinary efforts and sacrifices. Congress must also explore ways to provide drivers hazard pay during national emergency declarations. As COVID-19 is showing, many risk their own well-being while moving critical supplies for the rest of us.”

Waive 2020 heavy vehicle use tax

OOIDA said offering a one-time waiver of the $550 fee truckers pay per vehicle for the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax would be a straightforward way to provide tax relief for owner-operators.

“Assistance for truckers included in the most recent relief package could be helpful, but any economic slowdown as a result of the virus could jeopardize the existence of countless small trucking businesses, which comprise 96% of registered motor carriers,” Spencer wrote.

Don’t modify federal weight standards

While many weight restrictions have been waived across the country for commercial motor vehicles, OOIDA said that Congress must avoid any modifications to current federal standards.

“Permitting trucks to operate at a higher gross vehicle weight would have immediate and negative economic implications for hundreds of thousands of small trucking businesses, who would be pressured to increase their hauling capacity just to stay competitive potentially in the midst of an economic downturn,” Spencer wrote.

Life after the pandemic

Truckers, like everyone else, yearn for the time when the COVID-19 crisis will be over.

However, OOIDA wants to make sure that the nation remembers the role truck drivers played and that lawmakers take steps toward making trucking a viable career path.

“As the nation begins recovering from this crisis, we anticipate our members will face many new and unexpected challenges,” Spencer wrote. “When Congress returns to Washington, we encourage you to prioritize hearings focusing on emergency response and recovery needs within the trucking industry.” LL

Mark Schremmer

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.