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COVID-19 Crisis Puts Truckers in Financial Driver’s Seat

Don Rugg says he is benefiting, to an extent, from working extra hours for United Dairy.

UNIONTOWN, Pa. — Don Rugg drives a truck for United Dairy, transporting milk to locations in multiple states. Operating during the coronavirus pandemic concerns him, of course, yet he said it has provided a boost to his branch of the industry, a boost to his workload, and a bonanza for his wallet.

“It’s a good time to make money,” he said via cellphone recently while driving along Interstate 68 in Maryland. “Truck traffic is definitely up and we’re seeing fewer cars. We’re trying to keep grocery stores stocked. If it’s transported, it’s by truck.”

Navigating the COVID-19 outbreak poses challenges for truckers, who have had to steer through temporary rest area closures, restaurant shutdowns, indoor restroom bans and, of course, the deadly virus. Yet they keep on trucking at a time of desperate need for consumer products.

Not all divisions of this industry are benefiting equally, but Rugg and the other 35 United Dairy drivers based in Uniontown, Pa., have an opportunity to thrive during this crisis. The federal government earlier this month pulled back on limits to the number of hours drivers can work if they transport “critical” supplies, including medical equipment, paper products, hand sanitizer, disinfectant – and food. Many of those haulers relish the additional opportunities and extra pay, especially at a time of year that is generally “slow” in their industry.

Rugg’s rig was en route back to his warehouse/distribution center, following a delivery to Hagerstown. His hours had increased 20% in recent weeks, but he prefers that while providing a necessary foodstuff consumers are demanding.

“Food haulers are running full blast,” said Rugg, 55, who resides in the mountains east of Uniontown. “For us, the milk volume coming out of Uniontown is unbelievable.”

Until Gov. Tom Wolf issued his stay-at-home order across selected counties earlier this week, Rugg was working 60 hours a week – his choice. He said drivers at his plant, members of Teamsters Local 491, are set up to work four 10-hour days a week, with an option now to go beyond that.

“That’s slowed down a little since the order,” he said, though. “If people can’t go out, they can’t go to the grocery store.”

But the opportunity for extra work remains. “There is a lot of overtime available for drivers if they want it,” Rugg said. “Probably everyone at our facility was averaging 60 hours. If you’re not busy, it’s because you don’t want to be.”

His brother likewise is a trucker who is doing well, hauling heating oil, gasoline and diesel fuel. “People are panicking, ordering fuel,” Rugg said. “The price of crude is down, so demand is up. That end of trucking is booming now.”

Co-worker Alex Cavinee said he’s heard that business at the plant is up significantly.

He works more than 50 hours a week, and they aren’t standard hours. Cavinee said his shift begins at 2 or 3 a.m. and ends between noon and 2 p.m. He delivers to stores and distribution centers in New Jersey and Maryland, and to a facility in Baltimore that makes gourmet ice cream.

“I like the extra work,” the Uniontown resident said. But he hopes the crisis abates soon. Cavinee has a 9-month-old daughter and he is dealing with closures of day-care centers.

He, like Rugg, travels solo and is dealing with the invisible evil lurking over humankind. Yet he copes.

“I absolutely have concerns,” Cavinee said. “But I watch what I’m touching and keep my hands clean.”

This hasn’t been an easy ride, though. Many drivers travel mostly by interstate, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which expedites speed of delivery. But haulers have had to deal with closures of rest areas in some states, forcing many to take breaks — or to sleep — off the roadway or along exit ramps, or or get off the highway and try to find a location.

Dining also is a challenge for these commuters. Restaurants are closed for sit-down dining, but many are operating through pickup and delivery, and a number of fast-food facilities have a drive-up window option. But if you have a long rig … “I can’t go through the drive-through window at McDonald’s,” Rugg said.

Then there are job demands that have been complicated by all of the closures. Rugg explained that all drivers, including nationwide, over-the-road carriers, work a maximum 14-hour day, with a limit of 11 driving hours. Eight hours in the sleeper berth and two hours off duty are required afterward.

Those with trips 1,000 miles or more are dealing with a perverse supply-and-demand issue. They have the supply, but can’t deliver what is demanded.

“A lot of over-the-road guys have no place to go,” Rugg said. “One may pick up a load out West, but can’t deliver it on the East Coast because the business is closed. These guys are stuck. They’re losing hours and money. You see a lot of trucks sitting on exit ramps because of this.”

The trucking industry is huge, accounting for 71% of all freight tonnage in the nation, according to trucking.org. Yet it is coming off a miserable 2019, which businessinsider.com described as “a bloodbath.” Overcapacity and weak pricing caused at least 795 companies to shut down last year, foxbusiness.com reported.

Yet to Don Rugg, this is an essential industry in every sense.

“People have to be patient (about getting certain goods). If we don’t bring it, it doesn’t come.

“If the trucking industry comes to a stop, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

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