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Truck Drivers Navigate COVID-19 Hurdles

Monica Ybarra, corporate counsel for TBS Factoring Service, holds a sign announcing "sandwiches for semis" along I-35 near the Hefner Road exit in Oklahoma City, Friday, March 20, 2020.
Sue Ogrocki
Monica Ybarra, corporate counsel for TBS Factoring Service, holds a sign announcing "sandwiches for semis" along I-35 near the Hefner Road exit in Oklahoma City in March.

Truck drivers practice social distancing all the time. They drive alone. They often sleep in their cabs. You might think the pandemic-required isolation would be business as usual. But they still must eat, shower, and use the bathrooms.

Desiree Ann Wood is president of the driver advocacy and support group Real Women in Trucking. Early in the pandemic, many truck stops shut down shower and food services over worries drivers would spread the coronavirus.  

Wood said truckers erupted on social media. The National Association of Truck Stop Owners worked to educate state and local governments that the federal government designates rest stops and truck plazas as “essential businesses” important to the national relief effort.  

"So the showers have reopened but the food services have been limited. A lot of them were saying they were only going to serve through the drive-thru,” said Wood. 

“You can’t get a semi through a drive-through,” concurred Dan Fleming of LeRoy, who drives cross-country for the national firm Estes.  

Fleming said several restaurants in Wichita, Kan., had drive-through food policies. He said restaurants and truck stops have begun to adjust. They ask truckers to call ahead and either let drivers walk up to the drive-through window, or have workers bring the food to the truck.  

“And a McDonalds that had their phone number on their marquee. It also said, ‘We love truckers. Call us and we’ll get your order to you,’” said Fleming. 

Driver destination points are an issue. That’s when drivers can go into the shipping office and ask to use the bathroom. Desiree Ann Wood said this was sometimes an issue even before the pandemic. Now, Wood said even formerly accommodating businesses ask drivers to stay in their truck. 

“So, you’re basically trapped in your tractor with no toilet and they take forever to load you,” said Wood. “So, you could be there five to 10 hours and not have a way to go to the bathroom.”

Wood said rest stops were open on a hit-and-miss basis early in the shutdown.

“Those are places truck drivers rely on to wash up in the morning, park to sleep, make some coffee if they have a coffee pot in their truck. So, people need to realize they need access to this stuff, as they can’t park just anywhere,” said Wood. 

Drivers also worry about catching the virus. Wood said the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment extends to truckers, who must often enter warehouses and businesses during loading and unloading. 

If the truckers do catch the virus hundreds or thousands of miles from home and need to quarantine, Wood said there are many problems.

  • Is there enough money to stay in a hotel for 14 days?
  • Who is going to get them food?
  • For those employed by companies, is there support?
  • If they become sick enough to need care, who brings them to medical providers?
  • Where can they park the trailer for two weeks?

“That’s another thing we hear about is that drivers park somewhere and then the tow company comes and boots their equipment and tries to shake them down for money,” said Wood. “We just heard about that happening in Charlotte and a couple of other locations.” 
Wood said truck drivers network through various online support groups, with Facebook the preferred platform. She said word spreads quickly about communities that support truckers.

“A community brought out a trailer with portable showers, which is awesome,” explained Wood. “And they were making food for them and giving them little care packages.” 

Dan Fleming believes the recent attention to cleanliness should have been standard procedure even before the pandemic. 

“I think people are learning to be more cautious and a little cleaner and more sanitized, I guess,” said Fleming. 

Wood said some truckers believe that when the pandemic has run its course, people might be more empathetic when drivers ask for support.

“Like getting more truck parking and modernizing the way they are paid; they have a way to relate to it now. Now they can see what truck drivers do when they walk in the store and see those empty shelves. That’s what truck drivers do … they deliver that stuff that goes on the shelf.”  

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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