Editor’s note: an earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the recipient of Chris Spear’s letter. It is Sharon Block, the acting administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — What the American Trucking Associations wants from the federal government facing a vaccine mandate is now clear: an exemption.
Earlier statements by both the ATA and the Truckload Carriers Association had criticized the proposed mandate without offering a specific alternative.
But in a letter sent last week to Sharon Block, acting administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and in comments made at the group’s annual Management Conference & Exhibition in Nashville, Tennessee, ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said the ATA is asking for a trucking industry exemption from the looming rule.
Even if just 1% of drivers leave the industry over the vaccine mandate, Spear said, “the disruption will be massive and crippling to our supply chain and economy.”
The first public request for an exemption came last week in the letter sent to Block. In the 12-page letter, Spear requested an exemption for truck drivers, likening it to a Canadian rule granted earlier this year that gave an exemption for federally regulated truckers in that country.
As an alternative, Spear said ATA was seeking to have any regulation aimed at trucking to be moved away from OSHA and on to FMCSA. “Assuming the administration feels it must regulate truck driver vaccination and testing, a more knowledgeable regulator for trucking than OSHA is available and preferable,” Spear said in the letter.
Most of the comments from the ATA and the TCA previously have been negative but nonspecific about how the groups felt the trucking industry should be impacted by the mandate. That rule has not been published but is expected to require all employees at companies with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated. The governing agency of the rule would be OSHA.
In the letter, which Spear also touched on briefly in his remarks at a roundtable discussion at the group’s meeting Monday , he said a survey conducted by ATA showed that vaccination rates among drivers at the carriers surveyed was only 50%. Of that half who had not been vaccinated, 62% said they would not get vaccinated “under any circumstances.”
The survey also showed that 25% of the drivers would leave trucking completely if forced to vaccinate, and 49% would move to a smaller carrier not subject to the vaccine mandate.
Spear, sitting in on a post-lunch fireside chat at the ATA’s annual Management Conference & Exhibition, spoke about the group’s efforts to receive an exemption. Reviewing what the ATA had found in its research, Spear said the group’s arguments to the White House have been “on the merits, and we are hopeful that they will listen and exempt this industry.”
Spear noted that the ATA was involved in discussions on backups at the nation’s ports, and White House officials listened to some of the group’s suggestions. “My hope is they will listen like they did on the ports,” he said.
The fireside chat chat discussion was led by J.B. Hunt’s Chief Commercial Officer Shelley Simpson (NASDAQ: JBHT) .
At the lunch, Spear repeated a statement that is also in the letter to Block. The vaccine mandate, for trucking, is a solution in search of a problem. The trucking industry has done well to combat COVID-19, he said.
“Our industry and partners did a good job protecting our drivers; the infection rate of our employee drivers was 8.7%,” he said in the letter, comparing it to a U.S. rate of 13.2% in August. “While drivers are generally isolated during their workday, they also have extensive travel and periodic limited interactions with customers, hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. Despite this, we as an industry kept infection rates low for our drivers and we continue to do so.”
At the same time, there are other arguments in the industry heard at the ATA conference that social distancing is standard operating procedure in trucking. Drivers are usually alone in a truck cab, not in danger of infecting anybody. Even when they exit the cab, much of the time might be spent outside, such as on a loading dock or in an outdoor area of a truck stop.
Spear said the ATA was not pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine. “We are not going to get drawn into that,” he said.
Earlier in the day, when Spear raised the issue of vaccination as part of his annual address to the ATA meeting, he used the phrase that the government should not “pick winners or losers.” His comments at the midday fireside chat make clear that he is referring to the division that companies with less than 100 employees will not be subject to the mandate.
“You’re saying something with less than 100 employees is less of a priority than those above 100,” Spear said. “So don’t weaponize public health. If you’re going to do this, go all in.”
That echoed statements in the letter to OSHA. “ATA cannot fathom that assuming COVID constitutes a grave danger generally in the workplace for all health care workers regardless of size, that somehow that danger disappears the moment non-health care employers have less than 100 employees,” he wrote.
The ATA has “gone to great lengths to understand the infection and mortality rate,” Spear said, moving into the edges of an argument that has animated some of the more heated exchanges about what U.S. policy should be regarding COVID-19. The infection and mortality rate “is extraordinarily low.”