Entering 2020, the possibility of a pandemic seemed unfathomable. If companies thought about such a crisis at all, it was a “what-if” scenario. But “what-if” quickly became “what now?”
There’s no shame in a company admitting it was blindsided by COVID-19; in fact, most probably found themselves unprepared. However, as the pandemic approaches the six-month mark, trucking companies and logistics providers should reflect on their response to the crisis and ask whether they could have acted sooner, provided better protection for their drivers and pivoted their fleet in a better direction.
“Given the circumstances, I believe that trucking companies responded the best they could considering that everyone was in scramble mode during the first weeks of the pandemic,” said Ronald Ramsey, Reliance Partners’ chief commercial officer. “Trucking companies need to have a contingency plan in place before an event occurs to prevent you from having to scramble when something bad does happen.”
Ramsey points to the pandemic as the perfect opportunity for motor carriers to craft a set of backup plans. He explained that truckers often find themselves left to their own devices when a motor carrier experiences difficulty in dispatching loads or is unable to provide routine maintenance or other core functions. This is why drafting contingency plans for your nondriver workforce is just as important as establishing one for drivers.
“Many companies struggled to transition to the work-from-home model,” Ramsey said. “That is why you need to have a remote contingency plan in place so all areas of your company can seamlessly transition when trouble arises.”
The trucking industry’s initial response to COVID-19 has produced a fast learning curve. The pandemic introduced a wide range of challenges but also an opportunity to improve workflows and develop a solid contingency plan that can keep a company above water when disaster strikes.
The threat of COVID-19 has been unique in that it put both the economic well-being of the transportation industry and the health of its workers at risk. Logistics providers were tasked with finding the right balance between keeping their supply chains running smoothly and ensuring the safety of their workforce. The combined effects of the deadly pandemic, a panicked population, and the sudden shutdown of many businesses and production facilities wreaked havoc on the transportation industry this spring.
“When customers quit shipping, there are no loads to pick up,” Ramsey said. “At that point, you’ve got to focus on getting your truck drivers routed through a terminal or get them home so they can shelter in place and wait until later to get them on the road.”
Even for drivers who were unaffected by supply chain constraints, there were still significant challenges. For instance, drivers inadvertently found themselves at greater risk of contracting the virus as they darted from facility to facility without using personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition, truck drivers often lacked access to COVID-19 testing and found themselves unable to self-quarantine if they developed symptoms.
To make matters worse, the pandemic forced many restaurants in truck stops and service centers to temporarily close, which left many truckers looking elsewhere for a good meal.
“From a driver’s perspective, it’s a good idea to carry at least a week’s worth of supplies in their vehicles,” Ramsey said. He suggests truckers keep an adequate supply of essential items such as nonperishable foods, water, hygiene products, fresh batteries and flashlights at all times. “Truckers should always be prepared in the event they have to shelter in place alongside the highway or at a truck stop.”
As an invisible threat and nearly impossible to track, the coronavirus caused drivers, warehouses and shipping facilities to adopt tighter social distancing protocols to curb the spread. Ramsey said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more rigorous sanitation as well as aspects of social distancing remain commonplace in the industry.
“Shipping facilities will definitely be more aware of social distancing,” Ramsey said. “I also believe that drivers are going to start carrying personal protective equipment (PPEs) and other supplies in their vehicles.”
Ramsey also said the industry may adopt new technologies at a faster rate because of the pandemic. As transportation companies put a greater emphasis on sanitation, check-in processes and other aspects of the job that typically require human interface could soon be replaced with virtual communication methods.
Whether the pandemic will end sooner rather than later is still unclear. However, as the pandemic brought most economic activity to a halt, America’s truck drivers arguably played a major role in maintaining the heartbeat of a stricken U.S. economy.
“Truckers are the lead indicators for our economy. When they are doing well that means that the economy is doing well,” Ramsey said. He noted that increases in capacity have motor carriers optimistic as customers resume their shipping efforts. “I think that we’re going to have a sharp rebound and truck drivers are leading the way.”
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