The trucking industry is facing concerns that a federal vaccine mandate for truck drivers may exacerbate the long-lasting truck driver shortage. Now, the worry lies with mandating vaccines among all transportation workers.
“We are encouraging the vaccinations and we are working–corporate America in general–is working aggressively to try to protect their workforce and work with their workforce to make vaccines available,” said Derek Leathers, CEO of Werner Enterprises at the 51st annual Baird Global Industrial Conference. “We’ve done on-site vaccination clinics, we’ll continue to do that. But the mandate was a great concern to us.”
Early in November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a mandate that private companies with 100 or more workers would need to require employee vaccination or weekly testing. However, the rule has been challenged and subsequently stayed by a federal court, although it was scheduled to go into effect in January.
American Trucking Associations, along with other industry groups, have challenged the legislation, even though the rule would offer exemptions for those working remotely or who have minimal contact with other people. This rule would indeed apply to solo-working truckers.
“When we saw the final rule come out, our interpretation right away was that, clearly–minimum contact and remote work is excluded–you just described the American truck driver,” said Leathers. “We do believe they should be excluded.”
The argument here, according to Leathers, is that truckers typically have lower infection rates than the rest of the country, although testing and vaccinations should be required for large groups of truck drivers gathering for meetings or events.
Additionally, the driver shortage may worsen should a mandate be implemented, as many truckers entered the industry due to the autonomy available in that particular career path. The trucking demand following the pandemic era’s e-commerce boom has also boosted demand to unprecedented numbers, furthering the shortage itself.
“Demand is obviously strong,” said Leathers. “If you go back to the summer of 2020 and, really, through now, we’ve seen volumes that, more often than not, mimic what a traditional peak season has looked like. Certainly, by [Quarter] 2 of this year, we saw pre-load levels and volume levels that were very close to what a traditional peak would look like. The network can only handle so much more.”
Therefore, retaining the truckers the industry still has is of the utmost importance.
“We also know there’s a group that chose to be truckers because of an independent spirit,” Leathers added. “Mandating things for groups like that can be disruptive at a time when the supply chain can ill afford any more supply chain disruptions.”
The current high demand in overall freight will likely continue deeply in 2022, allowing the current obstacles to continue on–especially given a probable strong peak season coming soon.
“On the supply side, I think the driver shortage is here.,” said Leathers. “It’s real, it’s not getting better, it’s as difficult as I’ve ever seen. The OEM manufacturing issues are probably more real than I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit of a different ingredient to the cycle that we haven’t seen in past ones.”
The federal infrastructure bill will also likely bring about higher freight demand, although the industry doesn’t expect to see change due to the new legislation until later in 2022.
Additionally, many trucking companies haven’t been able to meet demands for truck replacement levels as the supply chain disruptions, along with the truck driver shortage, have led to a semiconductor chip shortage, as well.
“On the demand side, more workers are coming into the workforce each month,” noted Leathers. “You’ve got GDP growth that is still very strong, a lot of savings rates that have increased during the pandemic. You put all that together, and we think it’s definitely stronger for longer and certainly have confidence well into 2022. In my personal opinion, I think this goes through 2022.”
The mandate will also bring heightened strain as it would affect all transportation workers, in addition to many truck drivers.
“We have a lot of mechanics, a lot of warehouse folks–so, it’s going to cause a lot of disruption if that vaccine mandate stands,” said J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.’s chief operating officer and president of dedicated contract services, Nick Hobbs. “We’ve been prepared in case the mandate came out and was going to stay effective.”