Our nation’s health-care workers are giving us a daily profile in courage as they serve on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19—increasingly at the expense of their own health. But there’s another group of Americans out there quietly and often very much alone, working long hours to keep supply lines intact so that our health-care workers have vitally needed medical supplies and the rest of us have groceries and other essential supplies.
I’m speaking of the approximately 1.8 million women and men who drive trucks across our nation’s highways.
While many of us are huddled up at home to avoid getting ill, these drivers are out on the highways driving past “amber waves of grain” and our nation’s “purple mountain majesty” as they travel from sea to shining sea carrying goods to ensure, bluntly, that we survive.
Add to that, since the federal government last week lifted the restriction that truckers are limited to only driving 11 hours a day if they are hauling critical medical goods, food supplies, and other materials, it means many of them are now driving well over 12 hours a day to do just that.
Hosting a daily national radio show on SiriusXM has given me the opportunity to speak to truckers almost daily—typically about politics, since my show is on the progressive talk channel. But lately the conversations with this eclectic and often very entertaining group has been much more about “trucking in the time of the coronavirus.”
For some, helping people in this time of crisis is exactly why they became truck drivers, as Deb LaBree, who along with her husband, Del, hauls medical supplies to hospitals. LaBree, who is currently on the board of the Women in Trucking association created to encourage more women to enter the industry, explained to me that, “This is what we live for, to help people in times like this because they need their medication,” adding, “I feel moving America is an honor.”
Others I spoke to like Margie from central Wisconsin shared how it’s the truckers’ job to bring people food during this crisis. Todd, who calls frequently and shared Margie’s sentiment, jokingly marveled at how empty the roads are now that everyone is at home, boasting how he drove his truck through Chicago “almost without having to touch my brake even once.”
Some truckers, however, shared that due to financial concerns they had no choice but to drive even though they would prefer to be home during this outbreak. Curtis from Texas shared the reality of life for the approximately 400,000 truckers who own and operate their own trucks: “You roll the mile, you make the money,” but if you don’t, there’s no paid leave. In fact, there’s no pay at all. Worse, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 38 percent of truck drivers have no health insurance.
Some truckers like Larry, who hails from the “boot heel of Missouri,” explained that even though he’s 61, he’s not fearful of the virus. Larry noted he washes his hands and truck interior frequently and that he has long been “social distancing” as it’s just him and his dog on the road.
But Larry, who made it clear that while we disagree politically he still listens nightly to my “liberal propaganda,” did share a sentiment I heard from many other truckers: People appreciate them in times of crisis like now and after Hurricane Katrina, but afterward return to seeing them as “dirtbags.” (I’m sure Larry and other truckers were appreciative that President Trump acknowledged the sacrifices truckers were making in a video he posted Wednesday.) Other drivers didn’t exactly say Americans view them like “dirtbags” as Larry stated, but they did echo the sentiment that while some cheer them now, history has shown them that won’t last.
Now to be clear, some drivers are very concerned about catching the virus. Blake from Utah shared (via email, because as he put it “he doesn’t like calling into radio shows”) that this past week “has been pretty difficult for me as a truck driver” because all the truck stops are out of cleaning supplies. He noted that since he “comes into contact with people all over the western United States,” his anxiety level has been growing since he’s down to his last half-bottle of hand sanitizer.
He added, “I am at the point where I’m having to use foaming bathroom cleaner to wipe down my steering wheel and armrests at the end of the day.” He also noted that adding to the anxiety is that food costs are rising because of demand during this crisis, yet his wages aren’t matching that.
And while many truckers are used to driving alone, the level of isolation has become more acute now that many truck stops have closed or are open only for take-out orders. The result is that many have lost their only daily social interaction of standing outside the truck stops and “shooting the crap” with fellow drivers.
Truckers share the same concerns we all do about this virus outbreak, from health-related to economic. The difference is that while many of us can work from home or take time off, these truckers can’t, and not just because some need the money. They are the lifeline for everything from essential medical supplies to food and more. As Laurie, a trucker from Iowa, joked, she has to work because she was hauling the most vitally needed good in America: “Toilet paper.”
After speaking to a cross section of truckers, their simple hope is that the rest of us appreciate them even in times when there isn’t a crisis or national emergency. John, a truck driver from Washington state, suggested this simple token of appreciation, “Next time you are stuck in traffic because of us, instead of giving us the finger… just wave hello.”