It’s A Harder Road for Truckers

Eric W.

The video is brief — 43 seconds — but raucous.

A truck driver motoring down a highway, the White Zombie tune “More Human Than Human” loudly filling the cab of his 18-wheel, five-axle vehicle as he sways to the beat. And he’s singing along, although the lyrics have been slightly altered.

“Stop buying stuff,” he sings. “Overnight to Smart and Final. Now, overnight to Wal-Mart. Too much freight. Stop buying stuff.” It ends with him saying, “All I want at this point is a chance to get some decent sleep.”

Not that the driver, who asked to be referred to only as Eric W., is going to post the video on YouTube or any other outlet. After all, he has a job to protect.

“Yeah, that was late at night,” he said. “I was in my truck, I think maybe in Nevada. That’s why you see me looking forward. I was watching the road. It was pitch black out there.”

Eric, 53, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley but now lives in Washington, drives for a medium-sized company that delivers freight all over the country. He said he has been getting more jobs than usual, thanks in part to the pandemic outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. At the moment, he is in Olympia, Washington, picking up a freight order of paper. “There are seven giant rolls, each weighs about 5,000 pounds,” he said.

He is transporting the freight to Camarillo, CA, and is on a tight schedule.

“They’re trying to squeeze the delivery time, get us to move more freight,” he said. “I told ‘em I’m not gonna be 1,100 miles from here tomorrow, delivering this at 2 p.m. [on Tuesday]. I’m gonna pull up at a rest stop five miles from here. Now that the load is called out, I’m gonna tell them by 10 a.m. on Thursday now. This load’s quite heavy; when I go up the mountains it’ll be at about 20 mph.”

While other businesses are being closed and people are finding themselves out of work because of the coronavirus outbreak, trucking is vital.

For one thing, he said there is a national shortage of truck drivers — 600,000 by Eric’s understanding. But even without a shortage, long-haul drivers like himself who can transport just about anything that doesn’t require refrigeration, are finding increased demands from businesses like grocery stores that are constantly having to restock their shelves and need product hauled and delivered.

It’s the flip side of good fortune. Because of the run on grocery stores — “a lot of what we haul is dry goods for grocery stores, canned food, that sort of thing,” he said, speaking by phone while at a weigh station — his company is getting more freight orders than it could handle, which means they can charge higher prices. But, he notes dryly, “They want us to sleep less and drive more.”

“The way they try to do that is move up times they want us to deliver at — from an area that was fairly reasonable to one that is becoming unreasonable,” he said. “Their hope is you will drive more, stop less, sleep less and get it there. And as soon as you deliver, they’ve got another load for you to pick up. Their point of view is, ‘we’re not just helping ourselves, we’re helping you.’

“I’m paid 56 cents for each mile I drive. I average about 2,800 miles a week. It’s going up because they’re trying to get me to drive more. The belief is, if it’s unreasonable, you will push back. (But the engine of) my truck is governed at 65 mph. The truck doesn’t go that fast and I’m gonna go real slow through the mountains.  And we work on something called ‘hours of service,’ which dictates when we can drive. The maximum I can be on duty is 10 hours. Then I have to stop and take a 10-hour break.”

Another working trucker recently unloaded his feelings of frustration in stronger terms in a video that has gone viral. He was waiting in line with other trucks to unload his freight at a grocery warehouse in Battleboro, NC. He had a 4 p.m. appointment time to unload his freight. But with several other trucks still waiting, he said he might not leave until 9 p.m.; he had two other stops that he might not be able to make because he, too, would have to stop working according to his industry regulations.

What the driver termed “draconian” regulations on truckers, as well as the difficulties finding places to eat and available restroom facilities because of so many business closures due to the outbreak, triggered a 10-minute rant that has been viewed nearly 10 million times on social media.

“Do you know there’s truck drivers out here not allowed to use basic human comforts like a bathroom?” the driver said. “There’s drivers who can’t even get a cup of coffee or a hot meal because the governors of the states they’re in are in a panic, and closed all the bars and restaurants.

“Well, guess what’s in truck stops — restaurants. Some of them have drive-throughs, so they just shut down the restaurants inside and the only thing you can use is the drive-through. We’re truck drivers. Do you honestly think we can get [big rigs] in a drive-through? We can, but we’re gonna mess up a lot of things. But since we don’t have a car, they’re not gonna serve us.”

That can reduce a “meal” to snacks like chips, beef jerky and candy bars, the driver said. Or “a two-week old hamburger that’s been sitting in  a refrigerator at the gas station.”

“While you’re sitting in your comfortable home, having a meal tonight, watching your comfortable TV, let me ask you something: do you want to eat a microwave hamburger that’s been sitting in a cooler for a week or two?…If you say yes, good for you — go down to your local gas station and have at it. After I’ve worked a 14-hour day, I’d like to sit down and at least have a hot meal, even if that hot meal is as simple as a cheeseburger.”  

The driver also took a moment to chastise those he believes are trivializing the situation with cute memes and posts.

“You think it’s all hunky dory out here but it’s not,” the driver said. “I see your little ‘thank you’ notes out there — ‘thank you Mr. Truck Driver, we appreciate what you do.’ Forgive me if I’m not doing a tap dance people, but I really don’t believe it. To me it’s just words. Last week we were ‘zeros’ to you; people could care less about us. This week, now that your store shelves are empty, we’re your heroes?”

“This is gonna be over with soon. And then what’s not gonna be like afterwards? We’re gonna be nothin’ but a bunch of dirtbags in your way.”

Eric said he is grateful to be working, because he has driver friends who have been forced off the road because of the outbreak.

“Specialized hauling is what’s hurting right now,” he said. “There are people, who all they do is haul parts to auto plants in Michigan. Those auto plants have stopped, and that’s all their contracts — they stop. They’re not set up like us to just grab freight off of a loading area. When you have a specialized trailer to have cars or car parts go on it, you can’t take canned soup in that thing.

“So there are segments taking hits; I’m just not in those segments. But I’m [still] afraid of an overall economic slowdown.”

But hauling freight can be a demanding life in a heavily regulated profession. “I’m an over-the-road truck driver, that is my classification in terms of the industry,” Eric said. “You’ve heard of ‘long haul’ guys? They tend to be out on the road 2-3 weeks. Over-the-road drivers can be out 2-3 months.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is creating other demands. Traveling back-and-forth across country where the numbers of people getting very sick are going up each day is on their minds. Eric said he’s being careful to continually wash his hands and “use a major amount of hand sanitizers” while out on the road. The public remains cordial, but he keeps his distance when he’s doing his job.

One added benefit: traffic everywhere has lessened significantly, he said, since the “stay-at-home” orders were issued both in the state and nationally.

Meanwhile, Eric is doing his best to keep up with his schedule of hauling and delivering. He is mindful his segment of the trucking industry could be impacted, depending on how long the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily life and regular business routines.

“Right now our area of transportation is doing great because there’s so much freight to haul,” he said. “But if there is a recession, transportation will be affected. We transport goods. If there’s less economic activity, there’s less work for us.”

He confirms the bathroom complaints from his fellow truckers are legitimate and warehouses are full and having trouble with space but he hasn’t found truck stop restaurant completely shut down. 

Eric journals his life on the road each day on facebook and often signs off by writing: 

“The driver, the mind

  The truck, the body

  The road, the life.”

“I feel the love and I appreciate the support from the general public.  This is not a job for the faint-hearted,” he said. 

Diana Martinez contributed to this article.

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