Opinion: American truckers: our new first responders
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania — Chet Eby is making sure you will get all of the bacon you need for breakfast, or that thinly sliced prosciutto and provolone sandwich you've been craving. It is a Wednesday afternoon, and the 31-year-old has his young sons, Austin and Evan, with him hauling a load of 20-pound piglets from Cumberland County to Iowa. He is one of millions of road warriors behind the wheel of trucks traveling across the country every hour of every day to make sure the necessities you need and enjoy are available at your local grocers.
"I am hauling baby pigs from where they're born in Pennsylvania to the farms where they fatten them out in Iowa," he said from his starting point.
"If we don't transport freight, the country comes to a standstill," Eby says matter-of-factly.
Pigs have to go somewhere to fatten. From there, they are processed and delivered to grocery stores and butcher shops all over the country in refrigerated trucks. That is where KLLM Transport Services out of Richland, Mississippi, comes in, whose core business is refrigerated transportation.
"We have about 4,000 tractor-trailers nationwide with about 25 locations across the country," said Jim Richards, CEO of KLLM.
And they haven't stopped moving.
There are an estimated 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association, which delivers billions of tons of freight from one place to the other every year.
In the weeks since the coronavirus has spread across the country, KLLM truckers are the men and women who are making sure perishable foods and pharmaceuticals are delivered across the lower 48 states and Mexico, never stopping or slowing down your ability to get what you need — despite all of the barriers, restrictions and complications of the coronavirus.
Richards was hired by the company straight out of college for its management training program, which included him getting a commercial driver's license and driving across the country with a load. As a future manager, he deeply understood what the life of trucking and hauling meant. Now the biggest change is people not working in the office.
"We've never been one that allowed very many of our employees to work remotely. And so, thank goodness that we are a very technology forward-thinking company. And that's really what has saved us," he said. Each truck has two-way satellite communication. "The technology that we employ, both from a communications perspective on the trucks, as well as location, and also safety has really been a benefit for us during this time," he said.
"Obviously, we'd never foresee anything like that. But it enabled us to continue to operate. And our nondriving staff, which have never been allowed to work remotely, for the most part, we've got about 95% of them all working from home," Richards explained.
Truckers have become a new wave of front-line responders in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic — starting with Eby, who gets the piglet to the farm to be fattened; and the next driver, who gets the fattened pig to the butcher; and the next one, who gets the refrigerated meat to the store.
Before the realities of this pandemic, trucks were often ignored. They were considered an annoyance in our daily lives — chugging slowly up the winding hills of our back roads to that grocery store, hospital, department store or Amazon distribution center.
Never mind that they are filled with those essentials or nonessential things we thought we had to have. Too often people mindlessly assume what they buy at Target or Walmart or Whole Foods comes from the back room, not from a farm upstate, or a factory four states away.
"I'm glad that our industry is finally getting a little bit of a positive spin," said Richards. "So many times, you run up and down the highways, and all you see is plaintiff attorneys advertising, wanting to sue truckers."
Richards said if you get into an accident on the highway, usually a truck driver is one of the first ones there with the fire extinguisher, or trying to help paramedics or first responders. "And that's just the type of people they are," Richards said. "And I think a lot of times, quite frankly, the industry can be portrayed as a bunch of outlaws or kind of a rough group of people. And I understand where some of that comes from, but at the same time, they for the most part — they've got be hard. And times like this, it really shows up."
The Vicksburg, Mississippi, native said that he has been astounded by the way his team has stepped up. He said: "But I will tell you this, it's been surprising to me. We measure our number of drivers on time off every day. So we know how many of them are working versus at home on time off. And our time-off numbers have run lower, actually, than they did prior to the virus. I think a lot of drivers are very independent, but you won't find a group of people that loves to step up to the plate and answer the call in times of need that you will from truck drivers."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.