Now that novel coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, has made its way into the United States, it is almost impossible to turn on the radio or television and not hear news related to the outbreak. With governors of states such as California, Washington and Florida declaring states of emergency due to deaths attributed to the virus, suspending travel and canceling events, truckers are asking themselves if they should be worried, not only about their health, but their livelihood as well.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still insist that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is currently low if someone does not live in, and has not traveled from, a place where an outbreak is currently happening or have been in close contact with someone affected with the virus, but as the outbreak expands, the risk will increase. The CDC has officially declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic.
While companies across the country are closing down business temporarily or requesting that workers work from home, truckers are unique in that they do not have this option. As owner-operators, truckers that do not work, do not get paid, and truckers that continue to work risk becoming infected through exposure to others and to the freight they carry as well as risk spreading the virus themselves if infected. Data now shows that the virus can be spread even when not showing symptoms, making it easier to transmit as people do not realize they are infected and continue to go about their business.
With travel being discouraged throughout the world, truckers may face anxiety about the natural travel the job requires, coming into contact with truck stops, gas stations and other frequently used areas. However, some see the isolation of being in one’s truck the majority of the trip as a reason to be less worried. While still debated, many experts feel that the main way coronavirus is spread is through droplets from sneezing, coughing and infected people rather versus coming in contact with things infected people have touched.
Trucker drivers may be further at risk if they smoke, use e-cigarettes or have underlying health issues, as doctors say that these may be factors that up the risk of contracting the virus. In addition, according to the CDC, truckers are twice as likely to not have health insurance and often do not have the benefit of paid sick leave.
So what does this mean for the trucking industry, businesswise?
It seems so far, the effect is mainly being felt by intermodal truckers. American ports in states like Washington, California and Baltimore have seen an increased drop in imports arriving, or “sailings” which has created issues for some fleets. According to Sheri Call, executive vice president of the Washington Trucking Association, in an article for TruckingInfo “because sailings are down, our trucking members are struggling right now.
There is less freight coming in or out of the port” with reports of “reducing capacity and laying off independent owner-operators at the rate of about one per day to deal with changing circumstances.” Call also explains that because companies tried to get the jump on orders before President Trump’s tariffs against China went through, warehouses may still be full so the industry may not be feeling the full force of impact of the virus just yet. “Blank sailings have also caused marine terminal operators to reduce the amount of shifts they are open.” According to Weston Lebar, CEO of Harbor Trucking Association.
This means Southern California truckers are experiencing a hard time returning empty containers within detention time, leading to overflowing yards and fees incurred by fleets. Drivers that operate as independent truckers are required to pay for expenses such as insurance and fuel, and with the decline in goods available for hauling, some are out of work and starting to see negative paychecks.
According to experts, it is hard to know how much this will continue to affect the industry. It is notoriously hard to get accurate information out of China, with many of its own citizens accusing the government of covering up the severity and spread of the disease in its early days. It has been reported that China’s truck drivers have been affected by city lockdowns, quarantines and by many provinces not allowing outside truckers in, in an effort to stop the spread of disease. The problem is further worsened by factory closures and halted production as China quarantines entire populations and prevents workers from going back to factories.
Reports state that China’s refrigerated warehousing at marine terminals are full, with no laborers in warehouses and no truckers to move goods, with container ships docked in Shanghai to alleviate the plug shortage at the terminal, according to Jeremy Nixon, CEO of ONE, providing an additional 800 refrigerated container spots. The lull from Chinese New Year typically lasts throughout February, but due to current COVID-19 data, is forecasted to last at least through March, with many experts worried about how “challenging it will be to handle the cargo surges as a result of shippers trying to play catchup for lost time.” LaBar adds, in an article for Truckinginfo.
Due to the state of emergency being declared around the country, companies are worried about the possible quarantining of truckers, warehouses and facilities. With these non-operable, goods are unable to be moved where they need to be, which is especially tenuous right now as people rush to stockpile medical and household supplies, as well as food, driving up the need for more frequent deliveries of goods. Spot market truckload rates have risen in March and are expected to continue to rise as coronavirus containment measures are implemented.
With the CDC calling coronavirus “an emerging, rapidly evolving situation” one thing seems to be clear: the effect on all aspects of industry seems to be unclear and unpredictable as the virus continues to spread worldwide.