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Canadian truckers forced to choose: COVID vaccines or forfeit US runs

‘I’m not going to cave into a government regulation or rule I don’t believe in,’ driver says as US border vaccine mandate looms

Canadian truckers will need to be vaccinated in order to enter the U.S. starting early January. (Photo: JL IMAGES/ Shutterstock)

When Canadian trucker Kerry Delaine, a lease operator from Winnipeg, Manitoba, received his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine recently, he made a shirt to commemorate the occasion. It has a swastika formed with syringes encircled by the message: “Vaxxed by Force.” 

Delaine does not believe the vaccines are safe or effective but said he felt he had no choice. The reason: Starting in early January, foreign truckers — along with other essential workers — will only be able to enter the U.S. if they are fully vaccinated.

“My company doesn’t have enough Canada-only work, so I’d basically be giving my truck back to them because there’s no way in hell I can afford the payments,” Delaine said.

But just how many unvaccinated cross-border drivers will get the shot by January is a big open question. The Canadian Trucking Alliance estimates that 22,000 of 120,000 Canadian cross-border drivers would no longer make runs to the U.S. because of the mandate, which was announced in October. A further 16,000 U.S. drivers could stop running to Canada when a similar requirement from the Canadian government takes effect Jan. 15, according to the CTA.

The consequences could prove devastating to the cross-border supply chain, according to the CTA. Trucks typically haul over $300 billion of freight between the U.S. and Canada annually, with about 75% handled by Canadian drivers. Meanwhile, carriers across the country worry about losing large numbers of drivers altogether.

“The reality is, we’re playing a game of high-stakes chicken with the situation the supply chain is in right now,” said Steve Laskowski, president of the CTA, which is pushing for the U.S. to delay the mandate to give the industry more time to improve vaccination rates. “There are no backup drivers to draw from.”

Unvaccinated driver not concerned about hit to paycheck

Ryan Loyva, an owner-operator from Alberta, hauls industrial equipment between the U.S. and Canada regularly with his flatbed. Loyva has no plans to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and he will switch to handling domestic freight if necessary — even though it could be a significant cut to his bottom line.

“I’m not going to lose my house. The only thing that I have a payment on is my truck. So I can take a pay cut of 50% and still be OK,” he said.

Loyva said he is skeptical about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and believes that he’s at low risk from serious illness and death. But beyond that, Loyva said he is firmly against the premise of getting vaccinated in response to a government mandate — in this case from the U.S.

“Honestly, if it was not forced, that would open my eyes a lot more,” he said. “I’ve had other vaccines. But as I look at it, it’s a bigger issue than just a vaccine. It’s: where do you draw the line with government overreach?”

Not enough domestic freight for drivers who refuse shot, says trucking CEO 

A view from the side as a tractor-trailer of Canadian trucking company Challenger.
Challenger Motor Freight is one of Canada’s largest trucking companies. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Experienced drivers are in high demand across the Canadian trucking industry. But reflecting the nature of Canada’s trade flows, more long-haul truckload freight moves to and from the U.S. than domestically. Furthermore, carriers often integrate domestic Canadian freight into cross-border runs.

“There’s no way that we’d have runs for everyone,” said Dan Einwechter, CEO of Ontario-based Challenger Motor Freight, one of Canada’s largest carriers. 

Challenger’s domestic freight services are highly integrated into its cross-border operations. Its trucks often triangulate — such as running from Ontario to Vancouver and then to Los Angeles before returning, Einwechter said.

Carriers like Challenger haven’t been required to vaccinate employees. The Canadian government exempted trucking companies from a vaccine requirement for federally regulated workplaces. However, the U.S. government’s border mandate is indirectly having a similar effect.

For now, the company doesn’t plan to make vaccines mandatory but has been encouraging drivers to get vaccinated by educating them about the shots. Einwechter, who sometimes does cross-border runs as a driver, is fully vaccinated himself and recently got a booster.

“I tell them that, and when anyone asks, I say I didn’t have any side effects,” Einwechter said.

Challenger is still surveying drivers about their vaccination status, but Einwechter expects there will be at least some holdouts. The company doesn’t plan to create any financial incentives to encourage vaccinations.

“We’ll support them in the process of getting vaccinated for the time they need, but at the end of the day, it’s an obligation to society,” he said. 

For drivers at cross-border carriers, the decision not to get a vaccine likely means they’ll be seeking work elsewhere.

Shelley Walker, CEO of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada, said even though there isn’t as much domestic long-haul freight in Canada, drivers — particularly those with experience — will have options to stay in trucking.

“I think a lot of them will go to private fleets at places like Walmart and Canadian Tire,” Walker said.

Fears of ‘enormous’ delays at border to check vaccine status

Beyond the potential exodus of cross-border drivers, the U.S. vaccination requirement will add another layer of scrutiny at the border. The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have yet to release details about how commercial drivers’ vaccination status will be checked at the border, or the exact date in January when the mandate takes effect.

“Trade and travel facilitation remain a priority; however, we cannot compromise national security, which is our primary mission,” a CBP spokesperson wrote in an email.

Laskowski, of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, expressed concerns that the additional requirement will lead to much longer wait times at the border.

“Are you going to ask drivers to pull out their phones to show their proof of vaccination?” he said. “The delays will be enormous.”

The CTA, which represents around 4,500 carriers across Canada, has been pressing its case with officials in Ottawa and Washington. For now, there’s no indication that the U.S. will waver on the timing of vaccine requirements at the border.

“The CTA supports vaccines. It’s clear from a scientific standpoint,” he said. “But it comes down to a question of timing. It’s not the right time to introduce this to truck drivers crossing the border in light of what’s happening in the supply chain and in light of different parts of the country that have lower vaccination rates.”

Owner-operator says he’ll miss runs to the U.S.

Loyva hopes that the U.S. will walk back the requirement as January approaches on account of the impacts on the supply chain. He pointed to what happened after the Biden administration announced a mandate for vaccinations or regular testing at firms with at least 100 employees: The labor secretary subsequently said the rule wouldn’t apply to most drivers and a federal appeals court has since put the mandate on hold.

But if the separate border mandate goes forward as planned, Loyva is ready to stay in Canada, even though he’ll miss his runs to the U.S.

“I prefer coming to the States,” he said. “When it comes to the highway systems, the truck stops, the services that are provided to us, I much prefer being down south. But I’m not going to cave into a government regulation or rule I don’t believe in.”

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Nate Tabak

Nate Tabak is a Toronto-based journalist and producer who covers cybersecurity and cross-border trucking and logistics for FreightWaves. He spent seven years reporting stories in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a reporter, producer and editor based in Kosovo. He previously worked at newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the San Jose Mercury News. He graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied the history of American policing. Contact Nate at [email protected]