COVID-19: The drivers’ perspective

Truckers, touched by the pandemic in different ways, share their stories.

June 2020

Wendy Parker

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On April 3, OOIDA President Todd Spencer sent a mayday request directly to President Donald Trump asking for “urgent and immediate action to safeguard our supply chain” by assuring the professional drivers out there “busting their butts to care for the nation” have adequate access to COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment and, if needed, quarantine lodging outside of their trucks.

By the beginning of April, it was evident there were a number of drivers unable to find truck-accessible testing. Masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer on retail shelves at truck stops cleared out as soon as they were restocked – if they were restocked at all.

In response to the mayday request, it was announced on April 22 that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security were establishing a distribution network to get masks to truck drivers. Later that week, at its annual Medical Review Board meeting, the FMCSA began work on a plan to administer COVID-19 testing to truck drivers.

“This has been a long time coming, but it’s finally going to happen,” said Doug Morris, OOIDA’s director of safety and security. “The distribution of this (personal protective equipment) is a direct response to OOIDA’s letter to the president asking for PPE for truck drivers. They are continuing to work on other pressing needs, such as hand sanitizer and additional testing.”

Meanwhile, during the weeks it took to navigate something seemingly as simple as masks and hand sanitizer, life changed and went on for the drivers of America. Just like the industry, there was a different set of circumstances for different drivers and different freight.

The following are four accounts reflecting varied personal experiences from the road during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephanie Berry

Charlotte, N.C.

Stephanie Berry, a dry van driver from Charlotte, N.C., was feeling ill enough on March 27 to seek medical care. Upon waking with a fever that morning, she began looking for a facility that had enough room for a tractor-trailer. One hospital had enough of a shoulder to pull off but no safe truck parking accommodations.

“At that point I was just going to leave the truck parked where it was and walk across the lawn to get tested. I was sick, and I was scared,” Berry said. “All I wanted to do was make sure I didn’t end up dying in the back of my truck.”

After parking on the shoulder and calling the emergency room at the facility, Stephanie was told she needed a prescription to be tested for COVID-19. The hospital directed her to Urgent Care Travel.

She was prompted by Urgent Care Travel to contact a practitioner in Cartersville, Ga., via a virtual doctor’s office. A video-visit describing her symptoms concerned the examiner enough to issue a prescription for testing via email. Berry was charged $40 for the visit and directed to the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, Fla., where she was told to show her prescription to be tested in the drive-thru facility.

Upon arriving at the convention center, Berry was told by officials directing traffic that she could not enter with a tractor-trailer, nor could she drop the trailer elsewhere and enter with just the tractor.

“They were very rude to me,” she said, “I was crying, and I had a fever. I was sick and just wanted some help.”

Berry was directed to back out of the lot and given no further instructions by the people at that test site.

“By that time I was just mad at the whole state of Florida. I just wanted to get out of there,” Stephanie said. “I parked at the Pilot, called my dispatcher, and told him to get me the heck out of Florida.”

She eventually got a load to Virginia, and from there went home.

As it turns out, Berry did not have the COVID-19 virus, nor did she perish in the back of her truck at a truck stop from it. A visit with her family doctor in Charlotte confirmed Berry to be suffering from bronchitis and an upper respiratory infection. A round of antibiotics set her right.

Here’s the kicker: the city of Jacksonville did have a COVID-19 testing site that could not only accommodate big trucks, but it didn’t require a prescription, and it was free.

A lack of communication that has since been corrected left Stephanie angry, sick and afraid, feelings she will never forget as she set out on the road again after missing two-and-a-half weeks of work with her illness.

“I’m ready now,” Berry said in a telephone follow-up, “I have my own masks, cleaning supplies – all of the things I couldn’t find at truck stops before. I feel much more confident in having more information about the virus and how it spreads,” she said.

Steve Allington

Springfield, Mo.

OOIDA member and owner-operator Steve Allington saw the economic storm coming several weeks before the hard-core state shut-downs began. In mid-March he started adjusting his loads from over-the-road to short haul, taking runs closer to home and operating on a cost-per-day business model that made more sense to him.

Allington runs out of Springfield, Mo. The four-state region of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas area has been historically a profitable place for spot-market freight, he said.

“I’m in a good area,” he said, “and as I saw the effect this (pandemic) was having I realized it would just be safer and a better idea to stay within a couple-hundred-mile radius of home.”

A regional model also changed up his load planning. Steve set his sights on a daily minimum amount of profit acceptable. Recently his experience is the better-paying loads seem to be some of the heaviest – juice, water, sports drinks and other liquid grocery items.

Allington found the load-ratio to be against him but the risk mitigation to be worth it. Putting the least amount of mileage and wear and tear on the truck, not to mention the number of miles between him and his family, is working for him now as an owner-operator.

“I’m going to stay out until it doesn’t make sense to do so anymore,” Allington said. “I’m lucky to have fairly low overhead. I take pride in my ride, but I didn’t invest in a bunch of chrome. I have a very modest truck payment, and my wife and I don’t live above our means.”

One positive effect of his closer-than-usual range is having his wife, Anne, ride with him for the first time in 10 years.

“She did a bobtail run with me across town once,” said Steve, “but that’s about it.”

Anne’s maiden day-voyage turned out to be really fun for the couple, even if it was a short trip.

Allington reported to Land Line in a follow-up telephone interview that he broke even in his business expenses for the month of April, but he also took two weeks off for vacation – which is unusual for him.

At the time of the follow-up, Steve had been back out for almost a week and planned on sticking to his regional plan.

“It’s really cut-throat with some of the rates out here,” he said. “And I’ve noticed a lot of brokers trying to re-negotiate contracts to get set rates. I think they see the spike ahead coming, or they’re just trying to survive, like the rest of us.”

Christopher and Chante Drew

Kansas City, Mo.

“I’m going to tell anyone who doesn’t believe it’s real that it flat-out sucks, and it’s very real.”

Two days after taking a test for COVID-19, OOIDA member Christopher Drew received confirmation he had the virus on April 15.

His wife and co-driver, Chante, was tested the same day he got his results. Although her test results were negative, the dry, painful cough, general aches, pains, malaise and fever she experienced for two weeks compelled her primary care physician to assume the test was a false negative. Chante and Christopher were told by the local health department and their physician to practice self-isolation for 14 days.

The last series of loads the Drews ran before heading to their house in Kansas City, Mo., to recuperate originated on April 1 in Nogales, Ariz., where there was an extraordinarily long wait for their reefer load of vegetable freight to arrive and be loaded at the border.

“It usually takes one or two days at the longest. This time it took four days to get loaded,” Chante said.

After finally getting loaded, the team headed for Long Island, N.Y. In the two days it took the team to get fairly close to their destination, Christopher began feeling ill. During another unusually long wait between loads, he slept 12 hours straight, which also was unusual.

The couple found that lanes they used frequently between East Coast and their home weren’t running because states had begun shutting down.

Restaurants and other facilities using produce freight from these lanes dropped dramatically, leaving Chante and Christopher no option other than to deadhead from Buffalo, N.Y., to Canton, Ohio.

While searching for a load in Buffalo, the couple also attempted to find a test site for Christopher, because they were both pretty sure he was sick with either a sinus/upper respiratory infection or COVID-19, and they wanted to know for sure before making any decisions about freight.

Unfortunately, they were unable to find anywhere that could accommodate them within a 400-mile radius of Buffalo, so they took the load from Canton to Wichita Falls, Texas.

“We did the best we could to isolate,” Chante said, “but there’s only so much space in the truck. We couldn’t find hand sanitizer or masks until we got to Dallas, Texas, and by then I was sure if he had it, I did too.”

The deadhead back to Kansas City, Mo., was “no fun,” according to the couple. After finally returning home, they obtained a prescription for Christopher to be tested at a local drive-in facility in Kansas City, Mo. On Monday, April 13, that test finally happened. Chante took her test on April 15.

Christopher and Chante were both cleared by the health department to go back to work, but Chante’s bloodwork said otherwise when it came to driving right away. Her DOT physical revealed elevated A1C levels above those considered appropriate to drive a commercial vehicle and she was denied permission to return to her job until a passing level is achieved.

“I have never had any kind of diabetic or pre-diabetic condition in my life,” Chante said. “The doctor said it could be any number of things, but since they just don’t know a lot about after-effects of having COVID-19, it could be one of the strange, lingering side effects, like the inability to taste or smell anything.”

Her husband, Christopher, has returned to the road but looks forward to the day his wife can join him in their new truck. The couple has traveled together for five years, the financial burden of having one paycheck isn’t so much the issue as the disruption in their regular routine that bothers Christopher. He and Chante both just want to get back to working and whatever “new normal” looks like in their particular circumstance.

Chante was released to drive once her bloodwork came back normal in early May. LL

Wendy Parker

Wendy Parker has covered the trucking industry since 2012 after she says she “lost my mind and decided to climb inside my husband’s big truck to travel with him as an over-the road, long-haul trucker.” Her unique writing style that ranges from biting satire to investigative journalism coupled with her unbridled passion for fighting round out a wildly talented stable of writers.