With the COVID-19 outbreak promptly causing a major blow to the American economy, an immeasurable number of jobs were lost. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment surged from 4.5% in March 2020 to 14.7% by the close of April 2020.
For many Americans with their employment still intact, working remotely was quickly introduced, and will remain the norm well into 2021. In fact, economist Nicholas Bloom tells Stanford News that as of June 2020, "We see an incredible 42 percent of the U.S. labor force now working from home full-time." With the supply chain partners and clients of trucking companies suffering financially and closing, unemployment certainly does not benefit the trucking industry on its face. But even so, runs still have to be made, and amidst the pandemic, the transportation of goods has felt especially urgent.
The large number of Americans no longer committed to a daily commute certainly led to a drop in traffic congestion. Business Insider's road freight industry expert, Rachel Premack, touches on this topic during an interview with The Market Urbanism Report, stating, "A weird way that the coronavirus has benefited the trucking industry is that, because everyone’s working from home, traffic is way down. That’s made it easy for drivers to do their jobs. The average speed of a truck has doubled or tripled in major metros." For some truck drivers, this equates to more miles covered in less time, creating the opportunity for more runs, and ultimately more earnings.
According to an article published by statistica in September of 2020, data from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration illustrates a 25% decrease in road traffic during the second quarter of the year. With that, the total traffic on all roads and streets in the U.S. measures at the lowest levels since 1995. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 outbreak has been a crisis. But when it is compared to disasters that involve mass evacuations or damage to roadways, the reduction in overall traffic has been a small silver lining amongst the hardships faced by the trucking industry.
The economic fallout and massive shift to remote working in response to the health crisis naturally contributed to a notable drop in fuel costs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the producer price index (PPI) for crude petroleum fell 71% from January to April.
During the same interview, Rachel Premack points out that fuel is often a quarter or third of the expenses that road freight companies account for. Being that fuel is still a non-negotiable resource for the trucking industry, this particular effect of the pandemic has allowed companies to complete the same runs, covering the same distance, at a reduced cost.
Pay Raises (For Some)
As previously mentioned, the COVID-19 health crisis compounded the preexisting truck driver shortage. This was accompanied, however, with an added value to truck drivers, particularly experienced drivers, who were prepared to rise to the challenges that lay ahead.
In September 2020, CDL LIFE reported that prominent freight companies such as Schneider National were able to support their drivers with a pay increase. Schneider team truck drivers received a wage increase of two to four cents per mile, and with their team drivers averaging 5,000 to 6,000 miles a week, that equates to a pay increase of up to $6,240 a year per driver.
Similar to other means of essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of a truck driver took on an increased level of risk and steadfast commitment. With freight customers paying for quicker deliveries, it seems only fair that these drivers be proportionately compensated for meeting these demanding deadlines. As Crete Carrier President, Tim Aschoff said, "Now, our customers are asking us to do more, allowing us to provide a well-deserved pay raise to our drivers."
Support & Advocacy
It wasn't long after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency that American Trucking Associations announced a large-scale plan to provide truck drivers with personal protective equipment (PPE) for the unforeseeable future. On April 24th, ATA announced a partnership with Protective Insurance Company that involved the installation of ten 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer to various locations along major freight corridors.
Only two days following that announcement, the first five hand sanitizer refill locations were available for truck drivers to use free of charge. By May 5th, all ten refill stations were up and running, and come July 15th, stations were updated and restocked. In addition, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) assisted in the distribution of one million protective masks on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These are the type of swift and efficient responses at the early onset of the outbreak that bring a much needed sense of community and support to drivers who found themselves alone on the road in a very unpredictable situation.
Following a nationwide shutdown of nonessential businesses that left truck drivers in jeopardy of no longer having a reliable place to bathe and eat, advocates within the trucking industry made their voices heard. WGLT reported that The National Association of Truck Stop Owners shared their perspective with state and local government, advising that the federal government designate rest stops and truck plazas as essential businesses. The association stressed that providing truck drivers with these places of refuge off the road would be vital to the national relief effort.
Like a stone breaking water's surface, the COVID-19 outbreak promptly caused a series of ripples that continue to expand, disrupting the equilibrium of American society. The unpredictable nature of this health crisis has threatened extended periods of closures and isolation, which have upended typical consumer habits. While stores have felt the pressure to keep shelves stocked and customers satisfied, the primary burden has fallen on the trucking industry to ensure that stores meet those goals.
For many truck drivers, the job has never felt so simultaneously urgent and threatening to their health. This crisis has revealed the bittersweet mixture of pride and angst that can materialize with being an essential worker. Those already accustomed to the isolated nature of this job have been forced to go a step further by distancing from friends and family even after their work is done. But amidst the physical and emotional toll of supporting America's supply chain, silver linings have been woven into the thick fabric that has blanketed the majority of 2020.
The economic fallout induced by this health crisis did not bypass resources that trucking companies consider primary expenses, such as fuel. For a trucking company, the opportunity for an expense reduction is certainly welcome during a time where some drivers are logging record mileage. In addition to the drop in fuel prices, drivers witnessed far less road traffic as office spaces cleared for remote operations. The COVID-19 outbreak undoubtedly put a strain on the supply chain and truck drivers in particular. Ironically enough, other direct effects of this pandemic such as reduced traffic and fuel prices have made freight transportation a bit more manageable.
While no one can be certain just how long this pandemic will continue to affect our lives at home, work, and everywhere in between, it is fair to say that 2020 has been a historic year for the trucking industry.