Recruiters for trucking companies nationwide are pulling out all of the stops when it comes to sign-on bonuses, pay incentives and social media campaigns to attract drivers to the industry.
However, the founder of a trucker charity says the industry’s priorities are often misaligned when it comes to taking care of one of their own who dies of a medical condition or is involved in a fatal crash on the nation’s highways.
Robert Palm, a 40-year trucking veteran and founder of Truckers Final Mile, says he’s heard just about every excuse in the book why some executives of small carriers and mega fleets can’t — or won’t — pay the costs to help bring a deceased driver home.
That’s because there’s no federal mandate requiring trucking companies to pay the expenses when a driver dies on the road for any reason unless there’s a contractual agreement in place.
“Some carriers say their drivers are their No. 1 priority and they treat them like family,” Palm told FreightWaves. “It’s time to prove it. Put your money behind your words.”
Trucking companies are quick to retrieve their equipment and freight, he said, but often send grieving families to Truckers Final Mile, which relies solely on donations, to deal with the logistical arrangements and expenses of these tragedies.
Palm — who runs the charity from the cab of his truck — and four other volunteers from the trucking industry are passionate about the mission they embarked on nearly eight years ago.
While he never names the carriers, Palm doesn’t mince words when he and other members of his group chip in funds from their own pockets to pay transportation expenses for deceased drivers of some of the mega fleets in North America that posted billions of dollars in revenue in 2020.
“I had a company owner tell me one time that his deceased driver was his best driver and he thought of this driver like a son,” Palm said.
He noted that the owner’s fleet had the newest trucks on the market, and they “were decked out to the max” in chrome and chicken lights.
“If this driver was like a son to the owner, I thought, ‘Why are you calling Truckers Final Mile to pay the expenses to get him home?’” Palm said. “If you send a driver out on the road to work but you can’t afford to get the driver home if something happens — or to help his family that sacrificed everything to help you build your successful business — you shouldn’t be in my industry.”
Since January, Palm’s charity, a 501(c)(3), has helped the families of 54 drivers. As he pauses to check snowstorms and high-wind warnings in Wyoming, Palm worries that the number might increase in the next two months. The recent spike in COVID deaths among truck drivers also has him concerned. His charity has helped pay transportation costs for seven drivers who were found dead in their rigs after medical examiners determined the drivers had been positive for COVID-19.
The highest number of families Truckers Final Mile previously helped in a year is 56. With 10 weeks left in the year, Palm’s organization is preparing to exceed that number.
“We are continually in need of funding because we have been operating with a near-zero reserve throughout this year,” Palm said. “We need more sponsors to step up to help us finish out the year.”
Before COVID, Palm said the truck show circuit was his charity’s primary source of fundraising.
Truckers Final Mile and countless other trucker charities that help drivers and their families have taken a massive financial hit since the start of the pandemic that forced all of the major truck shows to cancel events for the past two years.
Some carriers step up
Palm said it’s important to note that there are some “phenomenal carriers out there that take care of their deceased drivers and also donate to help Truckers Final Mile’s mission.”
Shelley Walker, the CEO of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada, a nonprofit networking platform, said she was saddened to read a FreightWaves article about trucking widow Tabitha Moshier’s struggle to get her husband Doug Moshier’s body home after he died of COVID in his truck.
Tabitha Moshier was forced to charge nearly $2,000 on her credit card to have the body flown from Maryland to North Carolina in time for his birthday on Sept. 30. She paid the fees before she realized that Truckers Final Mile could help with the transportation expenses.
Like many drivers, Doug didn’t have life insurance, Tabitha said, because he was hired as an owner-operator to drive for a company leased to XPO Logistics.
Walker said situations like Tabitha Moshier’s happen “more frequently than many realize.”
“Without Truckers Final Mile, many families would be left struggling alone,” Walker said. “A good carrier would get their driver home.”
Susan Kirkpatrick, executive vice president and CFO at Buddy Moore Trucking Inc. of Birmingham, Alabama, agrees with Walker.
“We have always felt that it is our responsibility to bring our drivers home when tragedy strikes while on the road,” Kirkpatrick said.
Her company has 471 drivers and 472 power units and hauls general freight, metal building materials and paper products, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s SAFER website.
Companies that step up in such situations are often the exception rather than the rule, Palm said.
FreightWaves reached out over a period of days to some midsize and large carriers regarding their policies to get deceased drivers home. As of press time, none had responded.
“I interact with CEOs of companies that make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, operate brand-new equipment, but can’t or won’t fork over $2,500 to bring their deceased drivers home,” Palm said. “But then these same CEOs will turn around and spend thousands on recruiting ads and photo ops to show how well they treat their drivers. It’s unacceptable.”
An unusually dangerous job
The U.S. Bureau of Labor website states that professional truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations because of the potential for traffic crashes on highways. Truck drivers also have one of the highest rates of fatalities of all occupations.
The latest BOL statistics state that 2,122 workers died due to transportation accidents in 2019, a 2% increase from 2,080 in 2018.
A substantial number who died had worked as commercial truck drivers.
“Nearly 1 out of every 5 fatally injured workers was employed as a driver/sales worker or truck driver,” according to the BLS report.
The past 18 months have taken a toll on Palm and his small group of volunteers who work behind the scenes with medical examiners’ offices to get death certificates, coordinate arrangements with funeral homes and speak with grief-stricken families.
Palm said often his group makes 14 or more phone calls to arrange transportation and navigate government red tape. In some cases, it can drag the process out for weeks or even months for all the toxicology and other reports to be completed so a medical examiner can issue a death certificate.
“These families often can’t access funds or insurance policies without the driver’s death certificate so we know how important our assistance is to help them,” he said. “If we are called to help, we don’t ask about insurance policies or if a GoFundMe has been set up to help cover costs. We don’t care. Good on them if people are willing to help them financially. They’ve just suffered a huge loss.”
Since 2014, Palm and his volunteer board have helped more than 350 truckers’ families. Truckers Final Mile has never sent a bill to any client the charity has helped.
Molly Owens, mother of Stephen Owens, 36, who died while waiting for his truck to be unloaded in Wisconsin, thanked the group on the website greatnonprofits.org for bringing her son home to Florida. A trucker’s widow thanked Palm’s charity for paying the funeral home costs to get her husband home.
On average, his charity coordinates the arrangements for one or two drivers per week. However, Palm said one week his group helped four drivers’ families with funeral and transportation expenses, costing around $10,000.
“There are times we are like, ‘How did we pull that off?’ but the Lord and our dedicated sponsors always come through for us,” Palm said.
Ways to donate
Using his own money, Palm bought a trailer and paid to have it restored to help further Truckers Final Mile’s mission.
For a $250 tax-deductible donation, Palm said families or companies of fallen truck drivers can have their drivers’ names, CB handle and military service branch, if any, added to the charity’s newly wrapped trailer. The charity’s new fundraising initiative, called the American Heritage Memorial, has space for 1,000 names on its trailer. If all of the blocks are sold, the $250,000 could help fund Truckers Final Mile’s efforts for the next three years and allow the charity to build up its reserve to finance other projects.
This year already, 23 children have lost a trucking parent whom Palm’s charity helped get home.
His organization founded Sleigh Bells and Santa to ensure these children have a present under the tree this Christmas.
“This is the first Christmas without mom or dad,” Palm said. “We know a toy can’t replace the loss of a parent, but maybe it can occupy their time for a while.”
Trucks in the U.S. move nearly 73% of the nation’s freight, and the industry grossed nearly $800 billion in revenue in 2019, according to data from the American Trucking Associations.
Some carriers have internal programs that work to get their deceased drivers home. However, Palm said those drivers must enroll and agree to have weekly deductions taken out of their pay to cover those “just-in-case” transportation costs that they will hopefully never need.
However, driver orientation with a new carrier can be overwhelming, Palm said, and sometimes those critical boxes go unchecked or families assume the trucking companies are responsible to get their loved ones home if tragedy strikes on the road.
Palm said he would like to see the industry come together and treat its deceased truck drivers like the military provides for its soldiers. He would like industry stakeholders to create a policy so there’s no gap in coverage if you leave a company and immediately sign on with another carrier.
One situation stands out to Palm, a veteran who served in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army from 1975 to 1980.
“A driver who served two tours in Afghanistan decided to become a truck driver,” Palm said. “After spending several years hauling dry freight, this driver decided he wanted to pull tankers and haul hazardous materials but the company he was with for six or seven years didn’t have tankers.”
To advance his career and boost his pay to provide for his family, he signed on with a new tanker company.
“The driver was told at orientation that his benefits would kick in after 90 days,” Palm said. “This two-tour military veteran died on his 82nd day in his truck. I called his old company and his new company. Both said he didn’t qualify for any benefits so we helped get this man home to his family. This shouldn’t happen in an $800 billion industry.”