Truckers have accused freight brokers of price gouging during the pandemic and squeezing drivers with low rates.
A group of truckers gathered together just a few short blocks from the White House on Friday morning, where they blasted their air-horns to register their displeasure with the lack of help from the Trump administration.
The protest, organized by trucker Rick Santiago, was held to express truckers’ frustration over shipping rates that they say are so low that they can’t make a living. Trump, whose daily press conference was disrupted by the sounds of the horns, said the truckers were “with us all the way” and were “protesting in favor of President Trump, as opposed to against.”
He described the truckers’ efforts as the “sign of love,” and said he and the truckers were “working on something together.” The president has previously thanked truckers for their work during the coronavirus pandemic, calling them “foot soldiers” in the war against COVID-19, but for the truckers, praise is no longer enough.
“The American truck driver needs help, and we need it now,” Santiago, a 21-year veteran of the industry from New Jersey, told the Washington Post. “This is our distress call to our commander in chief to address the problems we are facing. He has called us heroes—his heroes need his help now.”
Friday’s protest marked the culmination of two weeks of protests by some of America’s 1.9 million truckers, who are suffering during the coronavirus pandemic as demand for their services falls. Trucks traveled 13% fewer miles in mid-April than in a typical week, according to information compiled by transportation-data firm Inrix. April rates for spot-market shipments, which are trucking jobs offered in real-time rather than through a pre-arranged contract, are also 54% lower than last year, according to a Business Insider report of data from DAT Freight & Analytics. All told, this drop in demand caused the truck transportation sector to shed 88,300 jobs in April, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Reuters spoke to five truckers and found that some routes are paying just 75 cents to 80 cents a mile, less than half of what’s needed to pay for fuel, insurance, and other operating costs. How much truckers are paid, which is mostly determined by distance driven, has also decreased, according to the report.
In order to try and stay afloat, truckers are demanding more transparency from freight brokers—the middlemen who connect shippers, who have goods to transport, and drivers. Truckers have accused these brokers of price gouging during the pandemic and squeezing drivers with low rates, and want to see broker-income caps established.
“It’s gouging,” Santiago told the Post.
Truck driver Mike Landis from Pennsylvania told Reuters that his workload had plunged by as much as 50% since the pandemic struck, and most of the jobs he was being offered were at rates below operating costs.
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“After being told we’re essential and told by the government to stay out here and basically risk our health to continue moving the things that the country needs, we’re being gouged,” Landis told Reuters. “We’re here as middle-class people, the people that put the president in office, and we’re here asking him for help.”
Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told the Washington Post that brokers get paid from shippers, but pass on “as little as possible to the small-business trucker, who also happens to be the one doing the most work and investing the most in equipment beyond a telephone.”
Even Trump has said that truckers are being gouged. “All they want is to be treated fairly,” Trump said during an interview with “Fox & Friends” last week. “And we’re going to treat them fairly. What they’re asking is almost nothing in many cases … we’re going to take care of them.”
Brokers disagree with the claim that they’re squeezing truckers. Robert Voltmann, the head of the Transportation Intermediaries Association, says the low rates are the result of a collapsing market. More than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment as the nation’s economy contracted by 4.8% in the first quarter.
“We stopped shipping much of anything except food, paper products, and things needed to hunker down at home,” Voltmann told the Post. “As a result, there is a dearth of freight. In a market economy, when too many trucks are chasing too little freight, rates go down. And, that’s what’s happened.”
The trucking industry has not received a bailout from Congress, and many drivers have struggled to obtain funding from the federal government’s small business bailout program. Taylor said her organization is trying to get more help from the government, including waivers for taxes and fees. The American Trucking Associations, which represents truck companies, is also seeking help, asking the federal government to suspend a 12% tax on new trucks and trailers.
On Thursday, the U.S. Transportation Department eased rest requirements for truck drivers, revising rules that govern how many consecutive hours drivers must rest and when breaks must be taken. The changes will increase flexibility for drivers as they work to deliver essential supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
It remains to be seen if the Trump administration takes any further action to help truckers, such as investigating brokers or providing a bailout. If the economic collapse continues unabated, independent truckers and smaller carriers could be in real trouble. According to the American Trucking Associations, 91% of trucking companies in the U.S. operate six or fewer trucks. These companies cannot spread costs across large fleets, which makes them particularly vulnerable and could push drivers out of the business.