Truck drivers struggle to meet their everyday needs as demand remains high for grocery store deliveries

Taylor Sienkiewicz Summit Daily

DILLON — As food supply distribution centers catch up with the demand the coronavirus shutdown and ensuing panic have created, truck drivers struggle to meet their daily needs with the changes made to rest stops, restaurants and health protocols.

From a consumer perspective, Safeway spokeswoman Kris Staaf said food and supply distribution has returned to normal levels.

“We haven’t had a product supply issue,” Staaf said. “What we had was customers doing a lot of panic shopping in the beginning, and honestly things have really leveled out.”

In Safeway’s Frisco store, Staaf said the abrupt closures of the ski resorts meant that the store didn’t see the amount of customers it was expecting, so there was more product available compared with Denver-area stores. With the exception of things that are still in high demand, like paper and cleaning products, Staaf said the Frisco store is operating fairly normally, especially as the county moves into the off-season.

King Soopers and City Market spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said there is an increased flow of customers coming into Kroger stores for critical supplies. To combat the demand, Trowbridge said delivery times have been expanded.

Patti Gillette, vice president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, said there has been a shift for truck drivers with demand high for grocery store deliveries and lower for other industries like retail.

Meanwhile, drivers have struggled to meet some of their basic needs like food and showers as well as protective and sanitation equipment.

“From the driver perspective, I think the main concerns are the personal protective gear,” Gillette said. “Masks, sanitizer, the availability and being able to get that, the availability of food and showers and all of those pieces of daily life that the virus has shut down.”

Gillette said rest areas for drivers have been shut down in some states. Although most are open in Colorado, things like showers that are typically available at rest stops have been eliminated or restricted due to heightened sanitation protocols. Gillette noted that the Colorado Department of Transportation has been responsible for keeping the rest stops open and sanitized.

The necessities

Food also has posed a problem. Gillette said it is difficult for drivers to get a hot meal. 

“Lots of drive-thrus are open, but of course you can’t drive an 18-wheeler through most drive-thrus,” Gillette said.

Not all fast food restaurants have made accommodations, but Gillette said some drive-thru restaurants have allowed truck drivers to walk through the drive-thru, some are delivering pick-up orders to the trucks and others are simply having drivers phone in their orders and pick them up in the restaurant.

Gillette said the biggest hurdles for these drivers are barriers to daily essentials along with the availability of personal protective equipment and the need to protect their own health. If drivers are expected to wear masks when entering a building or interacting with people when dropping off deliveries, Gillette said it’s been difficult to get the necessary facial coverings and sanitation equipment to all drivers. 

“If you’ve got 1,000 drivers that are spread across 48 states … even if you can source (the materials), trying to get to every one of those drivers in a short period of time to try to make sure they have sanitizing wipes and masks and all of that kind of stuff can be challenging from a logistical perspective,” Gillette said.

Gillette said it’s just another layer of logistics that the trucking industry hasn’t had to deal with before but that every day they are seeing more drivers with the equipment they need.

Although the state’s lodging facilities are closed to the public, Gillette said this hasn’t been a major issue for truck drivers as most drivers who are on longer trips have beds in their trucks. She said that drivers delivering to Summit County typically come from Denver and wouldn’t need to spend the night. Staaf said Safeway’s drivers simply loop from Denver to Frisco to Leadville to Vail and back to Denver in a day.

Some hotel chains have offered rooms to truck drivers who do need to find a place to sleep.

“There are lots of hotel chains that have reached out to the trucking industry and said, ‘We are open. We have great rates. We want your drivers. Here’s the number to call,’” Gillette said. “I would imagine most of them are limited capacity, but again they have opened their doors for truck drivers and medical personnel and made accommodations to do that while disinfecting and sanitizing between drivers.”

The open road

One element of the pandemic that has made things easier on drivers is the lack of traffic. Truck drivers have not had to deal with traffic congestion during the stay-at-home order. And according to Gillette, accident rates have dropped significantly as drivers aren’t exposed to the same risks.

Due to the virus, there is an increased demand for drivers in certain industry sectors. However, Gillette said there has been an driver shortage for years. She attributes this to the retirement of baby boomers over the past five to seven years, noting that a large number of truck drivers are 55 and older. Gillette said the push for high school graduates to pursue four-year degrees has created a decreased emphasis on trade schools over the past decade.

“I think we’re going to see a little bit of a reversal on that,” Gillette said. “When you look around today, the essential employees are your truck drivers. They’re your welders, they’re your diesel mechanics, they’re your plumbers and electricians, and not a lot of those guys are out of work. But there’s a lot of people with four-year degrees that are sitting at home.”

Gillette said she hopes the current situation can “shine a little light” on the trucking industry, which she calls the “backbone of the country.”