The sprawling Oasis truck stop in Robertsdale, Alabama, is an important hub for interstate commerce, and typically, a happy gathering point for road-weary drivers. It’s located just over the border from Pensacola, Florida, on Interstate 10, situated along that stretch of Gulf Coast that locals call Floribama. The truckers who stop here have been hauling produce from California, and grocery deliveries from distributors in Texas and Arkansas. Some have even crossed the border bringing in goods from Mexico. “If you bought it, a truck brought it,” one trucker there tells me on a recent Sunday afternoon.
This, of course, is true in the best of times, but it’s abundantly true now. Just like with medical workers, grocery store employees and the brave men and women currently delivering us food and packages, we’re depending on truck drivers to keep criss-crossing the nation’s freeways and highways, hauling loads through COVID-19 hotspots, over and over again.
What, though, are they thinking as they continually hit that open road on our behalf (and at the risk of their own well-being) — especially because we usually regard them as more of a punchline than a lifeline?
To find out, I spoke to about 10 such truckers during my few hours at the Oasis. My abbreviated roll call:
- Gurdev Singh, age not given, is the only trucker I see who’s wearing a face mask. He’s friendly, straight-forward and plain-speaking. The sort of homie who says (and fully believes) things like, “Being a truck driver, we’re trying to serve the community.”
- Long-haired, long-bearded and gruff-voiced, Scott Fisher, 56, is the sort of old-school truck driver who looks like he stepped out of a country song. Being a road veteran, he laughs easily as he eagerly counts down his days until retirement.
- When Larry Reese, 60, walks out of the truck stop with hot food and a weary look in his eye, he’s reluctant to speak with me; he does so, however, mostly because he wants people to know what truckers are dealing with in this pandemic.
- Wesley, in his late 40s, steps down from his rig to have a smoke, fill his trucks’ tanks and grab himself something to eat. He says he doesn’t know how long it’ll be until he might find another truck stop, since they’re pretty much the only places truckers can eat these days.
- Sonny Singh, 29, has only been trucking for the last two-and-a-half years, but in that time, he’s become an old hand. To stay safe, he travels with a co-pilot, his pit bull, Ivy.
Here’s what they told me…
How’s the road treating you? Have you been able to find places to stop to rest?
Gurdev: I don’t have any problem with that. All the rest stops are open in this area. But in Pennsylvania and other areas, they’ve closed them, which is ridiculous. We’re trying to serve the community. So it’s ridiculous that the government isn’t trying to understand our problems.
What about getting food and finding your next shower? How’s that going now that the world is more and more shuttered?
Scott: Kinda crazy. It’s definitely hard to find food.
Sonny: As far as food goes, you better stop somewhere there’s food at the truck stop, because 99 percent of these places will not let you enter to get food right now.
Larry: Also, if they do have food, you have to go in to get your meal and then go back to your truck to eat alone. You can’t be around other people.
If you’re hauling food, you don’t have any hours restrictions, right?
Is it accurate to say that the trucking industry has loosened a lot of the regulations about the amount of hours you guys can drive?
Sonny: Temporarily, because they need something from us.
Has this changed how you’re driving, or how many hours you try to get in each day?
Wesley: Nah, not really. The main thing is, do it the safe way, like we normally do.
Larry: We’re still all running the same way we’ve been running.
Do you think if a driver gets into a problem because they go over their hours, that the law or whomever will keep in mind that it occurred during a crisis?
Sonny: I was delivering a load of water last week to Missouri, and they still gave me an overweight ticket. I’m the one bringing you guys water. So I don’t know — they’ll make money wherever they can, regardless.
Do you worry about other truckers on the road, the ones pushing themselves to get food and water to those in need but who also put themselves at risk to deliver their loads?
Scott: I worry about truck drivers every day. Because it’s not like it was when I started. I’ve been doing this for 37 years. When I started, people were courteous to one another. Today, they don’t care about other drivers. They just care about themselves.
Have the distribution centers been cool with you guys? Are they working with you to come up with new protocols that help everyone?
Gurdev: No, no, no. That’s the worst thing. The government or somebody has to step in to tell these people. Because they treat us like animals. They don’t let us use their toilets. They may have a Porta Potty for us, somewhere. But they don’t allow us in the building. And now they take their time; they don’t care if you’re under your hours, or whatever. They do their thing.
Sonny: Some places are being real strict about it. They don’t even want you in the office any more. Like they’ll leave the papers in the trailer. They don’t even want to touch the papers. Meanwhile, other places are like, “SARS killed more people than this.” [Laughs]
Are you worried about the immediate future of trucking?
Scott: It’s not going to stop. The trucking industry isn’t going to stop. If we stopped driving, that would cause the country to go into panic and craziness. They’re not gonna let that happen.
Have you found that when you bring in a load from, say, Florida or Texas, where they haven’t been practicing the same amount of social distancing, people worry that you might spread the virus?
Sonny: Not really. Because they need the stuff so much. When people are in need, they’ll overlook a lot of things. Next year, it’ll probably be a different story. It’ll go back to, “Go to hell, drivers!” But this year, as of right now, I don’t know — what little appreciation we get, that’s cool.
The people you see on the road — have they been treating you with more respect?
Gurdev: The last couple of weeks? Yeah. But I wish they’d do that everyday.
Wesley: I’ve seen kinda 50/50. You see it on social media — there’s a lot of thanks on there. But on national network TV, they don’t do a lot for truck drivers. They don’t think of us.
Scott: I’ve had more people waving at me when I drive by. I think that’s part of all this, because that doesn’t usually happen. Usually, it’s people giving us the finger, or something. [Laughs] I think you see more of it on Facebook. More thanks. Truck driving is an honest profession, and yet, people hate us because we’re big and we’re slow on the road; we get in their way. But without us, this country stops. You can’t name a thing that hasn’t been on one of them. [He points at the yard of idling big rigs.] Well, not unless you grow it yourself. [Laughs]
Do you appreciate the sentiment? Do you believe it?
Sonny: I appreciate it, anytime. But I also know it’s circumstantial. We’re offering something you need right now, so you appreciate it. That’s cool. But we offer you this when you don’t need it so much, too. And in that time, it’ll be back to, “Go to hell!” [Laughs]
Is your family worried about you?
Wesley: Oh, of course. It’s like every day with them, they worry.
What have they been saying?
Steve: Just be real careful. Keep my distance from people and wash my hands. I carry extra soap and water in my truck, and every time I get in or out, I wash my hands.
Larry: My family worries about me getting something to eat more than anything else. Some places watch you and make sure you wash your hands. Some of us complain about that, but hey, that’s just good hygiene.
Scott: We don’t believe in all that — we think that the news is making it bigger than it is. I just think it’s a bunch of crap. I mean, it’s bad and people are dying from it, but every year we get a new flu, or a different strain of some flu. This is the first time they’ve gone crazy about it. And it’s ridiculous.
Gurdev: I was just talking to my friends right now. All my family members are scared that I’m going out, trying to deliver the stuff people need. Like, right now, I’m going to Florida, which is locked down. So I don’t know if the warehouse is going to be open, or if people are going to be working when I get there. But I feel like it’s my job to deliver the groceries to the stores. If there’s no workers in the warehouse, I’m going to be stuck there, and I won’t know for how many hours, or even how many days. But I’m still trying to do my job.
As far as the rates you guys are earning go, there’s been talk that some drivers are getting up to 6 percent more on loads. Has that been your experience?
Gurdev: No, nothing.
There’s been no offer of hazard or emergency pay?
Gurdev: No, no. Nothing.
No increased medical coverage?
Gurdev: No, nothing.