Even before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began, Windsor trucker Melinda Olah says she tried to avoid making stops during her daily trip to Toronto and back. If she does need to stop along her route, she prefers taking breaks at her pick-up and drop-off locations, rather than public rest areas.
“We’re worried to use public restrooms and public places when we need to use them,” she said. “They’re sketchy on a regular day without a pandemic … then take that into the mix, there’s a lot of times when I’ll avoid going into a place … because I’m worried about me.”
Olah earns her livelihood by driving a semi-trailer to Toronto and back to Windsor every day. She said if she becomes ill for any reason, she won’t be able to do her job.
“And that goes for every other truck driver,” she said. “So we’re not spreading [COVID-19], we’re trying to keep as safe and possible.”
There’s a lot of people out there really recognizing the importance of our job lately …– Melinda Olah, Windsor trucker
Despite some concerns about truckers potentially spreading the coronavirus, Olah said she personally hasn’t faced any criticism or stigma for doing her job during an ongoing pandemic.
“I personally get a lot more nods, I get a lot of waves, I get a lot of thank yous,” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there really recognizing the importance of our job lately [and] our job doesn’t exactly gain a lot of brownie points to begin with.”
Nonetheless she said she knows of other truckers — including her husband — who are finding it increasingly difficult to perform the work that’s been deemed essential by the Canadian government.
“My husband goes across the border all the time and [he tries] to be as safe as possible, especially with the situation going on over there,” Olah said. “It’s nerve-racking for me to even know that he goes over there, but luckily the places that he’s gone through so far are set up with fairly decent procedures.”
Truckers still welcome at some businesses
In order to help truckers find welcome rest stops, a group of software developers worked together in their spare time to create TruckersWelcome.ca, a website that maps out places where truckers can take a pit stop.
Ania Halliop, one of the creators of the website and senior director of engineering at FreshBooks, said the goal was to help “people who are actually keeping the supply chain open.”
“Without the supply chain working right now, we’d be in a very serious situation, because there would be no food in grocery stores, no medicine in pharmacies,” she said. “It would be even worse than it is right now.”
Though the website is intended as a resource for truckers, Halliop said it’s also a social platform, “so we could keep it really live and up to date.”
She hopes the website will encourage more businesses to add information about their available facilities, while also potentially opening their doors to truckers.
LISTEN | Software developer Ania Halliop talks about TruckersWelcome.ca with Windsor Morning host Tony Doucette:
The website had approximately 1,600 stops listed on Monday — approximately one week after the website launched.
“If people find this useful here in North America, it’s something we would love to expand and have developers take the idea and set up their own version in, let’s say, Europe, because they would have the same type of problems that we have here,” Halliop said.
Trucking association president concerned about state of industry
While trucks continue to travel, carrying goods for billions of consumers around the world, Ontario Trucking Association and Canadian Trucking Alliance president Steve Laskowski said reduced consumer purchasing power has made things difficult for trucking companies.
“We’re a consumer-based economy and consumer demand has fallen off the cliff,” he said. “A lot of people have lost their jobs, they’re not going to be having disposable income.”
“Disposable income creates economic development [and] economic movement, and it creates freight for trucks to move.”
[The] challenge is dramatically increasing.– Steve Laskowski, President, Ontario Trucking Association and Canadian Trucking Alliance
Laskowski said trucking companies are specifically finding it more difficult to fill trucks for round trips.
According to Laskowski, most trucking companies usually manage “empty miles” at levels between six per cent and 10 per cent.
“We’re talking now upwards of 30 per cent to 35 per cent empty miles,” he said. “That’s not sustainable.”
In order to offset losses, Laskowski said trucking companies are now working together to find ways to manage empty miles.
“Companies will say, ‘Hey look, I got a truck here … do you have a truck out there?'” he said. “They’re trying to work together, but in working together, that also forces these companies out of their lanes, travelling into parts where the drivers typically wouldn’t go.”
Though the trucking industry is playing a role in transporting essential products like personal protective equipment, Laskowski said many of the other companies that trade between Canada and the U.S. are currently closed due to the pandemic.
“Yes, there’s been more demand for certain types of product, but it by no means offsets what’s happening to the overall economy and the demand on trucking services.”