When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic first struck America back in Jan. 2020, no one knew how long the virus would affect the country. A year later, the U.S. economy is still struggling to recover.
Even the trucking industry is still hard-hit by the pandemic, with truckers lamenting the skyrocketing gas prices that affect their bread and butter.
Gas prices have increased dramatically
According to Lee Klass, a 73-year-old long-haul trucker with 50 years of experience, the cost of doing his job “spiked dramatically” by mid-May this year. Klass drives a Freightliner truck. And while he’s not transporting gasoline, his livelihood is also affected by gas shortages and higher prices following the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.
Last May 7, Colonial Pipeline’s IT network was attacked by Russian-based cybercriminals. The attack crippled fuel deliveries throughout the East Coast.
At a recent hearing, CEO Joseph Blount Jr. told a Senate committee that the company paid a $5 million ransom a day after the cyberattack. Blount revealed that one employee discovered a ransom note on a system in the IT network.
According to the note, the hackers had “exfiltrated” material from Colonial Pipeline’s shared internal drive. They demanded an estimated $5 million in exchange for the stolen files.
The company was attacked by a ransomware program created by DarkSide, a cybercriminal group believed to have headquarters in Russia. Blount added that after the ransom note was found, the employee told a supervisor. Higher-ups then decided to shut down the entire pipeline immediately.
Klass is now paying $3.60 a gallon, a significant increase from the usual $2.50 to $3 a gallon he paid in the early days of the pandemic. While there’s nothing he can do about the price of gas, Klass shared that he’s worried. Once gas reaches $4 a gallon, he’ll be shelling out at least $1,000 to fill up a 240-gallon tank. Klass drives long hours daily, and if he has to travel across the country in his truck, he needs about three fill-ups from the west coast to the east coast.
The increase in gas prices has complicated what was already considered a difficult job. The trucking industry requires long hours and has a comparatively higher turnover. It’s also an essential circulatory system for America’s economy as it transports consumer goods to and from warehouses before they finally make their way to consumers’ homes.
As the nation tries to recover from the pandemic recession, truck drivers have an important role in “ensuring continued consumer spending,” which contributes to about 70% percent of the country’s economic growth. Even temporary price increases and gas shortages are significant hurdles for truckers who deliver goods. (Related: Gasoline prices in California approaching $4 per gallon.)
While consumers purchase more products, the economy needs more truck drivers to address current gasoline shortages. Tommy Forrister has been a trucker for 22 years and he transports gasoline for Morgan and Hunt Oil Company in Rome, Ga. Every night he drives home to his family in Cedartown, south of Rome. But the current gas shortage has lengthened his workday. Forrister now has to work 14 hours a day and he’s often stuck in long lines as he refuels. The wait time varies from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how many truckers have arrived before him.
Other drivers are worried that the gas crisis could aggravate the overall shortage for some truck drivers, especially tanker drivers and those making local trips.
The debate about a driver shortage
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a highly competitive market for local, short-haul truck drivers. The industry successfully recovered jobs lost in the recession at the end of 2020.
Since November, wages have gone up by 4.6 percent, suggesting that employers are struggling to find more workers.
Those figures remain steady until March, the most recent month with detailed data for the industry. And while the market doesn’t appear to be struggling as much as other parts of the trucking industry, there are signs that rougher days are ahead.
Ryan Streblow, interim president of National Tank Truck Carriers, a trade association, said America has 10 percent fewer tanker drivers than before the coronavirus spread. The issue is made worse with “a disruption in the supply chain.”
Albert McCann, a terminal dispatcher for Penn Tank Lines, a petroleum hauler in Doraville, Ga., agrees with Streblow.
McCann has 30 years of experience, and he believes that there is a shortage of tanker drivers because of the pandemic. He explained that no one was driving anywhere during the pandemic since most people were stuck at home, from students to workers.
Truckers like him didn’t need to take fuel to the school bus barn or Greyhound buses. Since they weren’t needed to deliver a lot of jet fuel and gas stations were slow because they weren’t selling a lot of fuel, most drivers moved to “other avenues, other places, other industries.”
But some disagree about the driver shortage.
Norita Taylor, director of public relations for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), a trade organization representing truckers, said that the idea of a driver shortage is a decades-old myth.
She added that the real issue is high turnover, especially “in the truckload or long-haul sector of the trucking industry.” The latter has a shocking turnover rate of 90 to 100 percent.
Taylor cited a company with 100 drivers as an example, which in one year will have “completely turned over” its staff. Taylor warned that this isn’t safe for the country’s road and the industry itself.
High turnover rate compromises safety
Todd Spencer, president of OOIDA, agrees with Taylor. He explained that company safety is compromised when people are constantly being recruited and hired.
A high turnover rate might mean sending out drivers with little to no experience transporting cargo safely. But according to Spencer, not every sector of the trucking industry struggles to retain drivers.
The key to retaining drivers is pay and benefits. A $40,000 to $50,000 salary sounds good on paper, but drivers might think twice because the hours add up to 60 or 80 hours weekly.
Spencer added that the occupation hasn’t done anything to make itself more attractive to employees in 30 years, “since deregulation.”
At least 450,000 to 500,000 commercial driver’s licenses are issued every year, suggesting that there is no shortage of drivers. Unfortunately, they might be driving elsewhere because of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.
There’s an unusually high demand for drivers due to the pipeline shutdown. And if demand unexpectedly doubles, companies will have trouble covering all the businesses they’re offered. Spencer concluded that even if there are a lot of gasoline haulers in the country, most of them might have to temporarily relocate to address the surge in demand.
Visit Pandemic.news for more news on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the trucking industry and other businesses across America.