Pandemic fears trip up trucking sector

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, trucker Dave Wye had to think long and hard about whether he was willing to stay on the front lines.

The 54-year-old, a second-generation long-haul driver from Windsor, Ont., worried his exposure while transporting whiskey and wine between Quebec and Kentucky would risk his own health as well as his family’s.

“It’s always in the back of my mind. I’ve got a wife at home that’s asthmatic, I’ve got a daughter that’s asthmatic” — both of whom help take care of his 80-year-old father and 94-year-old father-in-law — he said.

“There’s still an underlying stress there,” Wye said in an interview from a truck stop in Cornwall, Ont. “You find yourself some days just staring at the sky, counting to 10 and screaming every once in a while.”

Wye has stayed on the road — eating almost exclusively in his cab from March through June to avoid potential exposure in public venues — but many big-riggers closer to retirement age have opted to park their tractors due to health concerns.

As the coronavirus mushrooms across the US, their absence has thrown up an additional barrier to fleets scrambling to meet demand for essential goods while aggravating fears of a longer-term driver shortage.

Higher demand for essential goods and food products is fuelling growth at a handful of companies, such as International Truckload Services Inc., which has nearly 600 trucks and counting.

“For anyone that’s hauling essential items, we’re busy, busy, busy,” said Monty Chrysler, head of recruitment and training at the Belleville, Ont.-based outfit, which largely ships paper towels and diapers these days. “We’re bringing on new trucks all the time. We’re very lucky.”

But many trucking schools remain closed, so new recruits are unavailable. Meanwhile about 35 of Chrysler’s drivers have asked to take a leave of absence or stay on this side of the border.

“These are usually older drivers, getting into their late 60s early 70s, that are really feeling vulnerable,” he said.

Many truckers have exited the sector voluntarily.

“The concern employers were raising there was, ‘Have we lost these drivers for good?”’ said Angela Splinter, who heads trade group Trucking HR Canada.

While companies specializing in short-haul delivery, groceries or medical supplies struggle to find workers, those focusing on long-haul or business-to-business shipments find themselves shrinking with the economy. Firms that ship automotive parts and manufactured goods ground to a halt amid the broader economic contraction last spring.

“It was much like feast or famine,” Splinter said.

More than three-quarters of employers have laid off workers due to COVID-19, according to a June survey by her trade group.

Employment in the trucking and logistics sector contracted by about 10 per cent or 72,000 jobs — drivers accounted for roughly one in two of those — in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic.

The resulting sales decline will cost the industry an estimated $3.2 billion this year, said a July report by the Conference Board of Canada and commissioned by Trucking HR Canada.

For Nachhattar Singh Chohan, who runs a 20-truck operation out of Mississauga, Ont., the uptick in sanitizer and food shipments hasn’t made up for the loss of freight revenue he’s seen in areas ranging from plastic to fertilizer and second-hand clothing.

“Business is at 50 per cent,” said Chohan, who also operates a truck-wash at his lot, where drivers unload their concerns.

“They’re feeling very scared… They eat in the truck. They sleep in the truck. They say, ‘We don’t want to bring disease to our families,”’ he said.

The pandemic has put pressure on an aging workforce. Up to 60 per cent of the trucking sector is older than 45 compared with 45 per cent of the Canadian workforce, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

“What we’ve seen is that that demographic is retiring at a faster rate during the pandemic,” said Stephen Laskowski, head of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

While truckers’ front-line role delivering critical supplies during the pandemic has come into sharper focus, the tough work circumstances — weeks on the road, low pay at the outset — tend to fan impressions of an industry sometimes associated with unglamorous lifestyles, potentially repelling young recruits, he said.

Meanwhile the constant strain of tight delivery deadlines and health worries can take a psychological toll, leading to potential burnout.

“It was very unnerving when it first happened,” Dave Wye said of the initial virus outbreak. “It was very stressful. ‘How serious is this? Are we going to die?”’

A substantial recovery is at least six months away, said Chrysler.

“I think most of us thought we’d be over the hump by now, but really we’re just knee-deep into it…I don’t like to preach doom and gloom but I think that’s the reality.

“It’s a changing world, for sure, and I’m not sure it’ll ever go back to the way it was.”