Ben, 31, works as a freight broker in Chicago. His job, as he describes it, “is the middle man between customers and truckers. Customers have freight to move — water, food, consumer goods — and my job is to find a trucking company to move it.”
For example, say a soft-drink company has 45,000 pounds of soda that needs to be moved from Chicago to Boston for $2,000. Ben’s job is to find a trucking company that’ll ship all that freight for less. And so, after a series of phone calls with various trucking companies, he’ll award the bid and collect the difference.
Because all of the parties involved are trying to work the other over, Ben says there’s a natural love-hate relationship between them. Which is to say, even under normal circumstances, the operation can be pretty cutthroat. “But since the coronavirus hit, the market has been in utter chaos,” Ben tells me. “A month ago, people were panic buying and there were way more loads than trucks out there, so the demand for a suitable truck skyrocketed, as did the rate to move the loads.”
Then, as the country shutdown, everything tanked.
Now, the only companies shipping goods are essential businesses — water, food and medical supplies; everything else has been suspended. “When there are 100 hungry trucking companies out there and only 50 essential loads to move, rates drop and soon the trucking companies are in danger of closing,” Ben explains. “It costs a ton to operate a trucking company, and when you’re not making any money, it’s not worth staying open.”
To that end, trucking companies “are taking anything they can get their hands on.” Or as Ben puts it, “Every time we post a decent load online, the phones blow up.”
Near the end of last week, however, a bid came across Ben’s desk that made his stomach drop. “It was a commodity I’ve never seen before,” he says. “The email read something like, ‘FEMA is looking for a reefer [refrigerated] trailer for storage. Trailer use: Mortuary storage.”
“In other words, the freight I needed trucking companies to bid for was bodies,” Ben continues. “I felt sick. I pictured thousands of families being unable to bury their loved ones because they’re stuck in these trailers. It was like the gravity of the situation hit me all at once, and I went to a pretty dark place. But I had to pull myself together and just realize, that this is necessary. It sounds awful, but it’s the reality of the situation, and I’ve been given the opportunity to be beneficial for these hospitals and families.”
The thing is, according to a former high-ranking employee of a large refrigerating trucking company often contracted by FEMA, it’s not always worth it financially. “We supplied [refrigerated trucks] during disasters such as large-scale fires and hurricanes,” he writes over email, preferring to remain anonymous. “We could have made more if the trailer was on the road, but how do you turn down a coroner’s office when they are in need?”
As for what happens to the trucks when it’s all said and done, the former high-ranking official says they’ll be destroyed. “Before we delivered them to a morgue or hospital, we always removed all of our company logos,” he says. “And when it’s over, we always sent ours to be crushed and taken to the landfill.”
Again, it’s depressing work. But as Ben also explains, it might be the only thing that keeps the industry alive. “Selling their reefers to be used as temporary morgues is definitely helping them survive,” he says. “All these companies have a diverse group of customers giving them freight, but those customers have disappeared. At that point, you evolve and try to find whatever you can.”