Many truckers looking for freight to haul, masks and even lunch

Julio Diaz was filling up at an Aurora truck stop when he got a lunchtime surprise: a boxed lunch, a face mask and a thank you for keeping the country’s food and other items rolling during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the weekend, Diaz was one of 30 drivers at the Pilot Flying J travel center who received a box from employees of Kavkaz Express, a Denver-based trucking company. Diaz, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla., is glad for the increased awareness of the role truckers play in keeping the nation’s stores stocked.

“Everywhere people are saying thank you for your service. Sometimes, on the bridges, you see people with flags and saying thank you. We feel appreciated, finally,” said Diaz, raising his fist.

However, the focus on the folks who deliver the toilet paper, milk, meat and other items in demand since the coronavirus outbreak escalated hasn’t made life on the road any easier. It’s actually gotten bumpier.

With most restaurants closed to dine-in service, truckers’ options for a hot meal away from home are as limited as their ability to maneuver an 18-wheeler thru a drive-thru. Some franchise restaurants are working with trucking associations to get food to drivers, either by carry-out or curbside delivery. And like other people, drivers are struggling to find masks and hand sanitizer.

Another effect of the economic slowdown is that while some drivers are busy hauling food to grocery stores, others are finding it tough to line up loads. Closures of restaurants, car dealerships and factories mean less work for many truckers.

“I drove trucks myself when I started the company so I know what hard work it is. But nowadays, when it’s COVID-19, it’s much harder,” said Kavkaz CEO Ruslan Shamanov,“.

To show support for truck drivers and other essential workers, Kavkaz has been handing out boxed meals: a hot sandwich, fruit, bottled drink, protein bar and a mask. The company distributed 1,000 meals to health care workers in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. Employees handed out boxes at about 10 Denver-area truck stops last week.

In Denver, Kavkaz worked with Pudge Brothers Pizza, which gave the company a discount on the sandwiches. Shamanov said the company has received emails and thanks from truck drivers and first responders. He said he’s glad to see other companies and organizations make similar gestures.

Kavkaz employees Rollan Daniyar and Bakhytzhan Tokkozhin, both wearing masks, carried stacks of boxes through the truck stop lot in Aurora, checking to see who wanted lunch.

“It feels good, especially at this time. It’s a very challenging time,” Shamanov said. “It’s time to show humanity to each other.”

Lisa Schmitt said she hopes the recent attention on truck drivers’ jobs will extend beyond the health crisis and lead to changes, such as more flexible hours and local regulations. Schmitt and her husband, Lee, recently featured the plight of a fellow driver as part of their online show, “Trucking with the Schmitts.” The driver told the Schmitts that he had to leave a laundromat in a Maryland town because he was in violation of a local ordinance that allows the parking of commercial trucks only during deliveries.

The particular challenges of making a living by hauling freight across the country have been heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, said Schmitt. “There are a lot of struggles going on: finding food, finding rooms, finding showers, laundry facilities.”

She noted that the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter Tuesday to grocery and drug store chains seeking help for truck drivers who can’t find hand sanitizer and face masks to buy. The association also asked that drivers be allowed to use restrooms in the stores, a problem Schmitt said has become more prevalent during the virus outbreak.

“Basic items like paper towels, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are nearly impossible to find right now. The irony is that truckers are hauling these supplies, but they are unable to actually buy them,” Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the drivers’ association, wrote in the letter.

Schmitt, who lives in Turtle Creek, Wis., said while truck drivers are trying to keep safe, they’re also trying to keep busy. She and her husband left Phoenix on Monday, where they dropped off drilling equipment, and were looking for more freight to carry. The pictures painted of truckers barreling down the highways to deliver the paper products and food that shoppers are clamoring for don’t include visions of drivers who usually carry heavy equipment and other goods sitting with empty trucks.

“There are literally eight trucks for every load on the load board,” said Schmitt, talking about online matching systems that drivers use.

Rates have also dropped, Schmitt added. “Rates are averaging about 97 cents a mile. You need to average about $1.69 a mile to make it worthwhile.”

Dave Legate was sitting in the cab of his truck in the lot of the Pilot Flying J, contemplating the drive back to his hometown of Norfolk, Neb. He usually delivers cooked eggs to restaurants, but restaurants have scaled way back as their business has dropped.

“There are very few loads out here and what loads there are, shippers are taking advantage because they put the prices down so low you can’t make any money,” Legate said.

Shamanov of Kavkaz Express said Amazon is keeping about a hundred of his company’s 400 trucks on the road, but so many other businesses are closed

“For example, we haul cars but the dealers are closed now, so no work for them,” he said. “So, 20 to 30 trucks switched to (refrigerated units) and started hauling food.”

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