Truckers are 'essential' coronavirus workers, but see no extra pay

When President Donald Trump gave four truckers golden keys and declared them the "foot soldiers" of America's fight against the coronavirus last month, truck driver Joe Plummer felt heard -- but still hopeless. "We as truckers love the support Trump has given us, but unfortunately that doesn't pay bills," Plummer told Business Insider. A typical rate for Plummer to take a truckload of goods from his home base of North Carolina to Los Angeles has plummeted from £4,700 two months ago to £2,700 today.

Meanwhile, his applications to the federal government to receive paycheck protection or a small business loan have gone unanswered. The £2 trillion stimulus bill signed into law in late March did not provide any coverage for America's trucking industry, which has been in a recession since late 2018. Plummer's plight resembles what truck drivers across the country have faced since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the work of truck drivers is crucial to keeping the US running, and they've only become more foundational to the country since the coronavirus pandemic has stressed food and medical supply chains.  Even in typical times, American society would crumble in days without truck drivers -- grocery stores shelves would run out of stock, ATMs would be empty, landfills would start to overflow, and, naturally, your online orders would be delayed. Hospitals are stocked multiple times a day with fresh equipment thanks to truck drivers, and these supplies are moved along the production cycle through trucks.  

AP_20122003283768 A contract port truck driver, Giraldo has seen work dry up as imports slow during the coronavirus outbreak.

He gets fewer than four hauls a week, compared with at least 12 in normal times.AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But even the truck drivers who move crucial life-saving hospital equipment are scrambling to make ends meet. Thomas Ramirez, who lives in Los Angeles, is a truck driver who moves medical supplies around California. Even though his work is needed today more than ever, he said his pay has declined by 20% since the beginning of the year.

The data backs up what truck drivers have anecdotally noticed. Cass Information Systems, which handles £28 billion in freight expenses each year, said the average rate that truck drivers were paid in March buckled to its lowest number since 2009. In April, America's largest trucking manufacturers reported the smallest number of new truck orders since September 1995.

Market analysis firm ACT Research said major companies like Daimler received a puny 4,100 truck orders last month.  In North Carolina, Plummer, like nearly 400,000 US truck drivers, owns and operates his own truck. With his business, he's supporting his wife and two children -- and is terrified of the moment his truck may need another costly repair. 

"One small repair when I go back out may flatten my company, my dreams, and the roof over my family's head," Plummer said. "We don't need memes and news conferences saying, 'We support truckers.' We need fuel to stay low, rates to go up, and some type of financial assistance until we recover."

'We're not going to work for free'

Many "essential" workers have put their lives on the lines during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of their efforts have been rewarded monetarily. Target, Walmart, Costco, and Amazon gave workers a temporary £2-an-hour pay bump as their work becomes more crucial to connect Americans to the food and household goods they need. Some McDonald's and Wendy's workers also saw a 10% pay bump. 

Meanwhile, few of America's largest trucking have announced similar bumps. Bucking the trend, trucking giant J.B. Hunt gave truck drivers a one-time £500 bonus in March.

Tyson Foods, which is one of the largest private employers of truck drivers, have given £1,000 in bonuses to its truck drivers since the pandemic has begun. But the overall lack of pay increases -- and even declines in income -- has led some truck drivers to wonder if they should keep working at all. The results to America's supply chain could be disastrous.

For Plummer, the low rates aren't worth leaving his family for weeks at a time. "We are risking our health and lives to take rates that wouldn't pay for our business," he said. 

Ramirez of California agrees. "Rates are going to be so bad that truck drivers are not going to move their trucks," Ramirez told Business Insider. "We're not going to work for free."

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