By Alex Binkley

When transportation was declared an essential service in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, few would have guessed the men and women who drive transport trucks would join the ranks of the front-line workers.

Connect2Canada, published by the Canadian Embassy in Washington, summed it up well. “Without truckers on the road, and especially during a pandemic, life would be a lot harder. Together with front-line health care workers, professional drivers across the United States and Canada are everyday heroes who are delivering food, life-saving medical supplies, and other essential products during a global crisis.”

BDO Canada says the pandemic brought new demands to trucking but also created many headaches. “Consumer needs were higher than ever, with more online shopping transactions and an active economy.” Drivers faced more difficult working conditions —“limited washrooms and food stations, and additional quarantine measures on their return home.”

The sector was already suffering from a shortage of 20,000 drivers and that number could climb to 50,000 when the economy returns to a more normal pace, BDO said. Unlike railways, airlines and shipping lines, the trucking industry is mainly provincially regulated, making it harder to get the driver shortage addressed. Sensing growing public support for the drivers, the Canadian Trucking Association, which represents about 4,500 trucking companies, launched a social media campaign called #thankatrucker to highlight the sector’s extraordinary efforts to keep the economy moving during the COVID-19 crisis. The campaign says “Truck drivers, in particular, have gone to great lengths to implement policies and best practices like equipment sanitation, social distancing, wearing masks; as well as promoting self-monitoring, contact tracing and voluntary COVID-19 testing, in order to protect the public and mitigate the spread of the virus while continuing to deliver essential products Canadians need during these unprecedented times.”

The campaign aims to underscore “how crucial the trucking sector is to the economy and the fabric of a functioning society during difficult times.” Marco Beghetto, CTA’s Vice-President of Communications, said, “I don’t think it’s an overstatement that the trucking industry, as the lifeblood of an economy and essential to the everyday lives of Canadians, answered the call to help. “The industry and all truck drivers should be proud of their efforts to support and protect Canadians during the last five months,” he said. “I hope the industry, governments and the public can join us in recognizing their commitment and dedication as we diligently pave a road toward the end of this pandemic.”

Transport Canada says about 30,000 trucks cross the Canada-U.S. border every day, carrying an estimated $1 billion in goods. Commercial traffic has remained relatively stable throughout the pandemic although averaging between 10 and 30 per cent lower than last year.

CTA says truckers tend to self-isolate far more than other workers and it’s not unusual for drivers to complete long journeys while only coming into close physical contact with one or two people.

Parvinder Bhangal, Vice-President of Paul’s Transport Inc. of Mississauga, says his company began preparing for Covid-19 in January based on what it was hearing from its manufacturing and retailing customers. “We knew something was coming up. We knew buying habits would be changing and that we had to diversify.” The goal was survival of the family-owned business. In addition to trucking, the company offers warehousing, and it expanded that operation with a stockpile of shipping containers that customers could store shipments in until needed.

It also purchased PPEs and sanitizers for employees who had to come to work while enabling others to work from home, he said. “We established paperless communications with our drivers. We found that our employees got used to that way of work and we got extra business from our customers. It was a vote of confidence for what we were doing.”

The company’s customers include shipping lines, railways, importers, exporters and freight forwarders. Paul’s employs its own drivers and also works with owner operators. While the first couple of weeks were hard and chaotic, the company kept rolling. “Working from home was an easy transition because for the last few years we have migrated our entire infrastructure to the cloud. Our technology was already virtually paperless. “We then reached out to every single customer as part of our continuity plan, worked with customers on how they were handling this, what their challenges were and how we could come in and support their changing needs during a very uncertain time.”

Not only did the company get extra business from its customers, “there were many warehouses and locations that only allowed our drivers into the facility because we had the proper PPEs and procedures implemented with our fleet.”

Looking to the future, Bhangal said, “Now, as we are moving into a better direction, we are continuing to utilize our resources. We invested in new phone systems recently, prior to the pandemic. The phones allow for video conferencing. “We used technology to enhance our driver safety meetings. We talked about safety in the pandemic, had a doctor come in and explained how to stay safe, applying proper hygiene during this time. Our proactive approach with information technology, our focus first on our front line drivers and our unique relationship with our customers driven by our openness to work with their differing needs during this time is what made us successful throughout this pandemic.”

Jean-Philippe Quintin of Groupe Robert of Boucherville, Que. said his company offers “over the road transportation but also warehousing, we had to make sure we reacted to our clients’ specific supply chains in order to ensure their optimization. With clients in every industry, we had to make sure we offered tailor-made solutions to each of them based on their realities. “Throughout this pandemic, our primary focus at Groupe Robert was the safety of our workforce. We were proactive in enforcing preventive measures with all departments both internally and with clients/suppliers. To limit possible exposure, access to our facilities was limited to employees only, and everyone coming in had to go through checkpoint stations, still to this day.”

GT Group of Montreal was hit hard back in March by the onset of the pandemic, says Sales Manager George Katosonov. “We saw a severe downturn in our business with the volume of shipments falling by 30 to 35 per cent in March and April. It didn’t really recover until August.” The strike at the port of Montreal also impacted on GT’s container-handling business, he said, but it was able to keep all its drivers working. It now is looking to hire more drivers. It also had about 25 per cent of its staff working from home.

GT is licensed to operate across Canada and throughout the United States. One of the main drivers in its business is exports, and shipments to Europe of food products, chemicals, metals and wood have been a bright spot so far this year. The company operates terminals in Montreal and Toronto, and uses a highly-automated EDI system for delivering the information on shipments to customers that proved invaluable during the pandemic because it eliminated the need for interaction between drivers and workers at warehouses where loads were being dropped off or picked up, Katosonov said. Even with all the turmoil and dislocation the pandemic has caused, “hopefully all the visibility it caused us will help us recruit drivers in the future,” he said. It has also provided a handy reminder to the public of the importance that truck transportation is to the economy.