by Stephen Laskowski, Scott Smith & David Carruth
It’s only been two months since COVID-19 grabbed the full-time attention of our country but it feels like a lifetime ago. There was surely some genuine anxiety back in March when it started to become very clear this pandemic was not just an Asian-European crisis, but one that was on the verge of sweeping North America as well. If just for a brief moment in those uncertain early days, it looked like there would be a real possibility many of us would spend weeks or months without certain food products and household items like toilet paper. You’d be forgiven if you admitted to making at least one Walking Dead reference when the media sensationalized isolated incidents of panic buying and mass hoarding.
Surely, by now, we’ve all noticed that grocery store shelves are staying filled and other than, perhaps, hand sanitizer and sporadic availability of disinfecting wipes, many essential products are reappearing pretty much overnight. Really, for a society fighting a pandemic, we have plenty of just about everything. The apocalypse will have to wait.
And we all know why that is: Because the hard-working women and men who drive truck for a living have dutifully answered the call, even at their own risk, to continue delivering the essential products and food Canadians desperately need right now.
Perhaps for truly the first time in our lives, we all got an alarming glimpse in those first anxious weeks just how fragile the line between chaos and civility can be. And it became pretty clear that it’s the supply chain – with trucking at its core – that keeps that fine line intact.
Listing everything moved between suppliers, manufacturers and retailers by trucks would exhaust everyone’s attention. So, for simplicity’s sake – as the saying goes – if you got it, a truck brought it. Those life-saving medical supplies we’re all reading about? Trucked. Parts for new ventilators? You got it. They rolled in on big wheels.
The country has taken notice. Although truck drivers deserve our collective respect all year-round, it’s nonetheless heartwarming to see the outpouring of appreciation from the general public and the country’s leading politicians. The #ThankaTrucker social media campaign – launched by the Canadian Trucking Alliance at the dawn of the crisis – quickly grabbed the attention of key decision makers and influencers, like Prime Minister Trudeau, Ontario Premier Ford and St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen, who were among those who used their highly trafficked social media platforms to send truck drivers words of appreciation and encouragement.
As the national and provincial voice of the industry, we at CTA and the Ontario Trucking Association had an immediate and primary responsibility to also protect all truck drivers. In the hours after Canada and the U.S. closed the border to all travel except essential services, CTA and all the provincial associations sprung into action to mitigate mass confusion and ensure truck drivers wouldn’t get stuck at the border as officials grappled with the new binational order. Other than a few isolated incidents of misinterpretation, commercial traffic continued to flow reasonably well back-and-forth between the two largest trading partners. Since then, there have been various policy updates to travel at the border and at home – including intra-provincial checkpoints – and both OTA and CTA stepped up to ensure none of it would negatively impact drivers.
When reports emerged that some insurance providers were voiding medical coverage for truck drivers crossing the border, both associations rallied the insurance sector and obtained commitments from the Canadian Life & Health Insurance Association and a handful of other independent providers they would not abandon truck drivers during the crisis. At the same time both associations were ensuring that expired plates and licenses would be managed by provinces and states in a reasonable manner. The Province of Ontario stepped up significantly for our sector in this regard.
While, for the most part, our industry’s supply chain partners were grateful to their transportation partners and behaved honourably during the crisis, there were several who disrespected and shunned drivers, insisting they stay in their trucks. Bathrooms were off limits. As we publicized this bad behaviour, driver mistreatment became – perhaps for the first time ever – a national story. Minister Garneau and Minister Mulroney took action to defend our sector, and the public responded.
As the days and weeks passed, drivers found it increasingly difficult to find safe rest areas and food service providers to serve them while on the road. Both OTA and CTA engaged Restaurants Canada and received commitments from some of the largest franchises that systems would be put in place to accommodate truck drivers, curbside. Since then, a host of smaller chains and restaurants have followed suit. While food is easier to come by, the price is soaring. CTA is currently discussing with the Government of Canada the possibility of providing drivers relief by increasing the meal allowance.
At the same time, carriers are suffering as well. While they answered the call to service Canadians, it came at a cost. To maintain operations during this critical time, carrier companies are reporting a 200-percent increase in ‘empty miles’ (the condition when trucks are travelling, but not generating any payload revenue); Nearly two-thirds of fleets indicate their customers are pushing for payment deferrals or simply not paying the trucking company at all. Simply put, several trucking companies say they are quickly approaching the ledge of a perilous ‘freight cliff’ – which, if true, could put the supply chain at risk. Ottawa so far has introduced several well-designed measures to support the Canadian economy through the COVID-19 crisis, but more must be done and specific measures are required for businesses like trucking which find themselves in a very unique circumstance during these uncertain times.
Now is the time to pay back the dedicated workers who chose to drive so Canadians didn’t have to – and for the supply chain and all sectors of the transportation system to come together to keep Ontario and the rest of Canada moving.