Americans are ordering more online during the coronavirus pandemic, truck drivers are more important than ever. But that is not helping drivers like Elmer Giron.
Giron is an owner/operator of Elmer’s Trucking LLC, based in Houston, Texas. Every morning, he gets up and scans a database for available deliveries for himself and his two drivers. In recent weeks, it has been a short list.
“There is no way to make a profit and I could not give that kind of work to my drivers or to myself there is no profit to be made,” he said. “They work for me because I am a good person and a good employer.”
Trucking may seem like the closest thing to a pandemic-proof industry. With much of the United States locked down for months, Americans relied on trucks to deliver their groceries, toilet paper and impulse buys like a 4000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Hospitals relied on trucks to bring them masks and medical supplies.
But that is not the reality of the situation, even though truckers are essential workers, freight volumes and rates have drastically fallen this year. Because manufacturing stopped, goods were not moved, and trucks stayed in place and drivers were out of work.
Leslie Escobar, a broker for ATS Trucking and receives deliveries for companies like Walmart and CVS. It is her responsibility to deal with the customer and the driver. With so many nonessential businesses closed, the available trips available are limited, yet ATS Trucking is still hiring drivers, Escobar says there is a need for drivers despite the diminishing customers.
“I have been a broker for 18 years and this is the first time I have experienced such a halt and such a decrease it was immediate,” she said. “I have a lot of customers that are shut down because they aren’t essential businesses.”
As a result trucking lost 80,300 jobs in April, according to the Labor of Statistics. This is the biggest job loss on record for the industry since 1990.
Trucking is an $800 billion-dollar industry. Drivers transport goods from one location to another and often carry 26,000 pounds of goods across the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average income in 2019 for heavy and tractor trailer truck drivers was $45,200.
“Some drivers have completely lost their work,” said Mike Kucharski, president of JKC Trucking. “If you look at an example like a linens truck driver where hotels are shut down, there is no work. In general, across the industry wages have been cut up to 40%.”
But truckers have been struggling even before pandemic. At the start of the trade war with China, the Trump administration announced 10% tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese imports in response China halted the purchase U.S agricultural goods. The drop of the shipment imported from China meant less product is needed to be hauled by trucks, by the end of 2019, the industry reported over 10,000 in job losses.
The signing of the “Phase One” trade deal in January 2020, signaled stability for the trucking industry as China promised to invest more in U.S manufactured goods and agriculture. But then China’s closure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the shutdown of all non-essential business in the United States slowed the import and export of goods into the country.
Even lower fuel prices have taken a toll on truckers. Lower gas prices are amazing for the average commuter. But for truckers, lower fuel prices can mean less income. Fuel rates, availability and weight determine price of a delivery. With the decrease in load availability, long distances and a lowered rate, for-hire drivers are finding it difficult to accept the rate and drive across the country without making a profit.
For Giron, the virus disrupted his life and income. In March, there were deliveries available but Giron could not work because he was recovering from coronavirus. He shut down his business to protect his employees and family. By the time he recovered, demand had fallen and rates were too low to take a long haul worth his while.
“It’s not worth it, you know,” Giron said. “Normally a load from Alabama to Texas would be $800 but not anymore, there is no money.”
While income is vital to the survival of every industry for truck drivers it is especially hard as it is a lifestyle. They spend time away from their family and are asked to unload the contents of the trailer in a two-hour window. Drivers must plan rest stops, they are prohibited from driving for longer than eight hours, however with the pandemic making supplies and good necessary the rules regarding driving time have been laxed.
While the hours are long, prior to the pandemic, drivers had truck stops available to them along their route. Now several of them are closed across the country. If they are open, they do no longer supply food or facilities for drivers.