Once recession-proof, US trucking is squeezed by coronavirus

Faisal has been on the road for three weeks. A Palestinian immigrant and professional truck driver, he has driven his 16-wheeler all over the United States; from his home in North Carolina to Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and up to the Canadian border. This has been his life ever since he became a trucker in 2002, earning enough from hauling goods to support his family. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit US shores, Faisal is barely breaking even.

Faisal believes if this situation continues, it could financially devastate him and many of his fellow drivers, and lead to fewer trucks on the road.

“I delivered my load to Arizona at 5 in the morning, I stayed the whole day looking for a load, and I couldn’t find one,” he said. “It wasn’t until the next day that I found one; the truck stop and the side roads were full of truckers unable to get loads. It’s very unusual.”

Trucking is supposed to be a recession-proof industry. But the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic downturn that is accompanying it, is rewriting the rules. According to DAT Freight & Analytics, the largest online freight marketplace in North America, despite a brief bump in March, the number of loads available for truckers has plummeted 32.5 percent since January.

Making matters worse, the rates they are being paid have decreased an average of more than 8 percent. This means that not only is it much harder for many truckers to find loads, even if they do, it might not pay enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The American Trucking Association, the country’s largest trucking industry trade association, is now warning that trucking companies will be forced to lay off drivers, further adding to the US’s huge unemployment numbers. But the country’s army of independent owner-operators, believed to number approximately 350,000, are arguably in an even worse position.

“As far as owner-operators go, there’s a particular issue with the economic side, because their margins are so narrow, to begin with,” Norita Taylor, director of PR at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDR), told Al Jazeera. “With freight rates taking a nosedive recently, that’s particularly hard. Business has cut back, and if there are no loads to haul, there’s no money to make.”

The problems facing truckers are juxtaposed with the profession’s vital importance in ensuring that the few remaining active parts of the US economy are kept supplied, and grocery stores are well-stocked. An appreciative public has taken to thanking truckers for continuing to work, despite the risks, but at the same time, most truckers do not get paid time off or sick leave.

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