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Even though they may have the highways pretty much to themelves, truckers are increasingly being denied warm meals, hot showers or even a place to wash their hands as rest stops close and service stations bar access to washrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Industry representatives say shuttered truck stops and off-limits gas stations are a growing challenge across the continent for workers who form an integral, not to mention essential part of the supply chain -- from hospital goods to grocery stores, distribution centres and home delivery -- at a time when millions of Canadians are staying home and non-essential businesses closing their doors.
"It’s pretty bad out there," said Teamsters Canada spokesman Christopher Monette. "It’s a huge problem."
Russ Morris, who drives for a general contractor for FedEx, said so many of the places he’d regularly stop at are closed, or they are not allowed in. He’s been forced to pack his own food on most trips now.
"It’s hard to get 60 feet of truck through a Tim’s drive-thru," he said. "All the Husky Restaurants, Denny’s, Perkins are closed, as are many truck stops. We are paying outrageous prices for food. We are being gouged."
Truckers are now our lifeline to survival. The shelves at the grocery stores – one of the only places North Americans are even allowed to go these days -- would be empty were it not for the truckers.
"If we all stopped for three days we'd all be like when we were just born -- naked, cold and hungry," Morris said. "In two days the gas pumps would be empty and in five days you’d be lucky to find a can of kidney beans on the shelf."
But even some of the truck stops that are open allow only limited use of washroom facilities and most have closed their showers.
“All the Husky Restaurants, Denny’s, Perkins are closed, as are many truck stops. We are paying outrageous prices for food. We are being gouged.” – Russ Morris
Truckers are even having a hard time accessing cleaning and sanitizing products, essential for safety these days.
Garth Pitzel, the senior director of safety and driver development at Bison Transport, said it's one of the biggest concerns for drivers.
Bison just received some four-litre jugs of sanitizer and is encouraging drivers to bring in containers and fill them up.
"It’s like gold," he said.
While there are also stories of kindness from strangers out on the road, there are plenty of challenges making it harder for truckers to do their jobs.
Even the shippers who have contracted to have freight moved are treating the drivers as if they are a nuisance.
Terry Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said everyone understands that many businesses are closed but some that are open are refusing to let drivers in to use washroom or rest facilities while the freight is being handled.
"They may be well-intentioned but they're misguided when they say in order to protect their staff and facility, they are not letting the drivers in," he said. "The drivers need to come in to use the washroom and engage in sanitary protocols while delivering freight and picking up freight."
Shaw said that kind of behaviour doesn’t just endanger the driver but the whole supply chain.
"They are going to want the truck there to provide that essential service but they need to accept the driver as well and and provide them safe access to the facilities especially when they are working remotely and they can’t count on being able to go down the street to a Tim’s because they are closed now," he said.
While there are some affronts to basic civility -- Shaw said at least one shipper installed port-a-potties for drivers so they wouldn't have to come into the facility -- there are also others who are going out of their way to help. Some motels are keeping rooms open just for truckers. Social media appeals for cooperation have inspired all sorts of acts of kindness.
When Cindy Pelletier, a Winnipeg bookkeeper -- with no other connection to the industry other than an uncle out West who is a retired trucker -- heard that drivers were having a tough time finding meals on the road she offered to complete grocery runs for drivers passing through Winnipeg, meeting them at Deacon’s Corner.
“It is a terrible situation we are in. But this is what we do every day. We quietly go about our business. But now it’s a front–line thing and people are realizing it is a pretty important industry to keep the economy rolling." – Garth Pitzel
"I was shocked because we are so dependent on these people to get stuff to us that we need," she said. "It is a really important service."
Truckers don’t often get compared to health care professionals when it comes to providing vital services to the community, but that's almost the case these days.
Pitzel said although we are all going through unprecedented times of fear and uncertainty, it is an opportunity for the trucking industry to shine.
"It is a terrible situation we are in," he said. "But this is what we do every day. We quietly go about our business. But now it’s a front-line thing and people are realizing it is a pretty important industry to keep the economy rolling."
— With files from Canadian Press
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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