US trucking firms move to safeguard drivers, employees amid COVID-19

US trucking firms move to safeguard drivers, employees amid COVID-19

Large trucking firms say they are extending pay for sick drivers. Truckers want to know how they'll get home. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

For many truck drivers, the day now starts with a check not of their equipment, but their own temperature. Efforts to safeguard drivers from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) — and keep freight moving — mean more precautions, changed routines, and greater need for communication with drivers. That goes for shipper customers and receivers, too.

“We’re taking the temperature of every employee who shows up to work,” said Geoff Muessig, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Pitt Ohio Transportation Group, a regional less-than-truckload (LTL), truckload, and package carrier. “Our employees are willingly participating. We’ve got to put the team in front of the individual.”

That’s only the first of many steps Pitt Ohio and other LTL and truckload carriers are taking to fight the spread of COVID-19 and adjust to a rapidly changing trucking market. As businesses close and the pandemic spreads, truck drivers find life on the road more difficult. They say trucking companies need to do more, and spend more, to lift some of that load off their backs.

These steps likely will require close cooperation with shippers, who also may be facing staffing shortages in warehouses and on docks as they increase production of goods such as toilet paper. Logistics managers need to remember that drivers represent capacity they need to move essential supplies now and will need again as closed businesses gradually reopen.

What happens when drivers get sick on the road is a sore spot for many truckers. “Carriers need to make some coherent plans for dealing with COVID-symptomatic drivers too far from home or too sick to safely make it home,” a long-haul trucker who asked to remain anonymous wrote to JOC.com. That includes medical attention, transit home, or lodging, he said.

What drivers don’t want is to be told to stay in their truck and weather out a quarantine with nothing but a camp toilet. If that’s the option, “I think I’m going to stay home,” the driver said. That would be a nightmare for carriers, but so is trying to find medical care and, if necessary, lodging for sick drivers who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from home.

Coherent plans are not an unreasonable request. Trucking companies need to communicate clearly with drivers and shipper customers — something truck drivers have complained isn’t always the strong suit of large motor carriers. Trucking companies are now setting up special hotlines and communications hubs for drivers and employees dealing with COVID-19.

“The first thing we do if they’re not feeling well is we connect them with medical professionals,” Werner Enterprises CEO Derek Leathers said. “We then support whatever recommendations are handed down, and that could include routing them home for quarantine, or it could be self-monitoring.” Customers are notified if a shipment is going to be delayed as a result.

“At this point we have not had an in-transit positive, but we realize it is possible,” Leathers said. “We’ve had drivers who have informed us they’re starting to feel ill and might need attention.” As of last week, the company has had three employees out of 14,000 test positive for COVID-19.

Werner last week rolled out a formalized response plan to support drivers if they’re put in quarantine. Werner will continue to pay drivers for the 14 days they spend in quarantine, Leathers said, and also has an employee assistance fund they can draw on. “It’s my intention to hold on to every associate at Werner throughout this crisis,” he said.

As COVID-19 spread in March, Werner donated $1 million to the employee assistance fund, which was founded to help its workers weather natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, Leathers said. “We want to be able to provide additional support on an as-needed basis above and beyond two weeks continuation of salary when drivers are quarantined.”

Turning to technology

US Xpress, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based truckload carrier, also is paying quarantined drivers, Eric Fuller, president and CEO, told JOC.com. “If somebody is sick, you don’t want them to go without a paycheck, so we’re giving them a weekly lump sum paycheck while they’re out and recovering.” As of last week, two drivers had tested positive for COVID-19.

“With a fleet our size, it’s inevitable,” Fuller said. US Xpress has 7,500 truck drivers. The key to finding a route through this chaos, Fuller said, is ramping up communications with employees. By late March, Fuller had held six town halls with US Xpress employees, including three dedicated to truck drivers. “In general, we’re trying to over-communicate,” he said.

Technology also plays a key role in keeping drivers en route and on schedule, Fuller said. As the pandemic spread, US Xpress raced to add to its mobile app 36,000 locations where drivers could buy food. “With their normal eating spots closed or disrupted, they can look at the app and find grocery stores or a retail location we know is open,” he said.

US Xpress also added a truck parking database built largely by its drivers to the app. “We’ve asked drivers to crowdsource all their parking data by sending it to us, and we feed it out to the fleet,” Fuller said. “Today, we have 44,000 parking spots [recorded in the mobile app]. This wasn’t even on our road map when we began planning our response to the coronavirus.”

Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings, the owner of Swift Transportation, Knight Transportation, Abilene Motor Express, and Barr-Nunn, said Friday it had established 24 locations where drivers for any of its subsidiaries can get food, water, cleaning products, and other staples. The holding company also said quarantined drivers will be compensated for lost time.

LTL carriers face unique problems

LTL trucking companies face a different challenge from the pandemic than their truckload counterparts, especially when it comes to social distancing. LTL freight picked up at customer locations moves through local terminals to linehaul trucks and then to remote terminals before final delivery, a process that requires multiple drivers and dockworkers per shipment.

Dockworkers, similar to drivers, can’t work from home, which means more employees potentially exposed to COVID-19. “We’ve limited the flow of people through our terminals,” Pitt Ohio’s Muessig said. “For pickup and delivery drivers, we staggered their start times. In the terminals, we changed the break rooms, discouraging employees from mingling in common areas.”

That can go against the grain in a business that depends on teamwork. “Before this, we were always encouraging those interactions,” said Muessig. “Now we have to discourage them.”

That’s as true on a shipper or receiver dock as in a carrier break room. “There are some customer locations where there’s congestion at the time of pickup, and we’ve streamlined that with customers,” he said. For example, Pitt Ohio is encouraging LTL shippers to have shipments labeled and ready to load on the dock when truck drivers pull up to a warehouse door.

“More of our customers are taking on that extra administrative work because they want to minimize the time the driver spends on their dock,” Muessig said. On the receiving side, the carrier limits driver interaction with dock personnel, no longer requiring proof-of-delivery signatures. “I think everyone realizes that it’s in both parties’ interests to maximize social distancing,” he said. 

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.