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Fleets write their own playbook to navigate the pandemic

April 15, 2020
The first part of a two-part series on navigating your fleet through the pandemic details how fleets are coping with risk management, safety, and handling federal regulations in the COVID-19 world.

Amanda Schuier, senior vice president of Quality Transport Company, realized the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic would drastically disrupt business as usual when she received a photo from one of the company’s veteran truck drivers at the start of the outbreak in the U.S.

The Quality Transport driver, who has 30-plus years of experience on the road, captured an image on March 12 when he was stuck in a 75-truck bottleneck on the way to a loading dock. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before.

“This picture is what made me realize that things were going to change, and things were going to change pretty rapidly,” Schuier said.

Schuier joined David Heller, vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA); and Tom Moore, executive vice president for the National Private Truck Council (NPTC), during an April 14 FleetOwner webinar, “Navigating Your Fleet Through the Pandemic.” The webinar covered the supply chain's impact on commercial fleets, business responses, and keeping trucks on the road during a global health crisis.

After receiving that photo, Schuier explained that Quality Transport immediately secured remote access for office employees so everyone could work from home when necessary. The company also made the difficult decision to separate drivers from other essential office staff, like dispatchers, to keep all employees healthy amid the pandemic.

“We changed some of our drivers’ hours and shifts. We’re trying to be more flexible in terms of accepting loads that are outside of our ‘normal hours,’” Schuier noted. “We’ve had discussions of changing our hourly drivers’ hours and spreading the wealth around so that no one loses their job. That is really important to us as a company; we want to make sure that everyone gets hours.”

Right now, Schuier, who oversees safety, human resources, sales and operations for the company, stressed that it is important for drivers industry-wide to know their company has a plan in place.

Quality Transport, which has a fleet of roughly 31 trucks, sends out multiple weekly updates and a weekly YouTube video to keep its drivers up to date. But a major challenge, according to Moore, is there is no playbook, as the industry has never experienced anything like this before.

“There are constant changes within the industry — daily changes; hourly changes; changes at the federal, state, and local levels; health advisories — and there is a lot of confusion and misinformation,” Moore explained. “The best advice is to be transparent. Do as much research and get as much knowledge as you can to make data-driven decisions, and make sure your team members understand that you’re not going to have all the answers, but you’re going to try and help them be successful and healthy.”

“You have to let your drivers and entire team understand that you really care about what they’re doing, appreciate what they’re doing, and make sure you are communicating in a manner that is timely, accurate, and that shows you care,” he added.

Moore, too, emphasized that one of NPTC’s members waited in a 2.5-mile line to be unloaded at a shipping facility for two-and-a-half hours.

“That gets into the drivers’ heads,” he explained. “We need to do our best to work with the shippers and the receivers to make sure we can get the units in and out. Drivers need to be alerted before they show up if there is going to be a line.”

“As we start coming out of this crisis, it is not going to be a smooth and easy transition or a steady, upward climb in all sectors of the economy,” Moore added. “There are going to be companies that are going to be doing much better and those who are struggling. … In terms of some of these bottlenecks, we have to understand that we do have the capacity, but the capacity is only as good as the weakest link in that supply chain.”

Reducing the risk

When it comes to social distancing and reducing the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, Moore emphasized altering the physical work environment and educating drivers about washing their hands, using sterilizing wipes, and sanitizing as much as possible. He added that many NPTC member fleets have altered their routes and eliminated team operations to keep drivers safe.

Of equal importance is equipping drivers with personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gloves. In addition, some NPTC members have been screening drivers’ temperatures, using more digitized processes, and utilizing in-cab cameras.

“Right now, [PPE] supply has not been a huge issue across our membership,” Moore said. “We had a member report that they had gotten the spouses of their drivers involved in making masks for all the drivers. That’s one of the good news aspects of this whole crisis — when the community comes together to support those on the front lines.”

But what happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Moore explained that NPTC members are notifying other employees when they have worked with or come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. All names are kept anonymous, he added, according to health privacy laws. 

When a driver does test positive, fleets have been cleaning and sterilizing the infected person’s truck and putting that vehicle into quarantine for a while. Moore also said a number of NPTC members are looking to rent trucks while their existing units are quarantined.

As for the driver or employee who does test positive, Moore said: “Let them know they are going to have to stay home for a minimum of 14 days and monitor the situation. You have to show them you care. The vast majority of our members ask employees to stay home with full pay, and it doesn’t count against their vacation or sick time. I think that’s really a positive way of saying you’re not going to be penalized if you show symptoms and are asked to stay home.”

Several NPTC-member companies are implementing extra holiday time off for their employees, he added.

Regulatory waivers and exemptions

TCA’s Heller referred to the current climate as a “whack-a-mole of regulatory topics.”

“Every time one issue pops up and you hit it, the next issue pops up on the other side. That has basically defined my activity over the past four weeks,” he said. “I remember going back a month-and-a-half ago when our biggest news was hours of service (HOS) and what changes we were expecting from DOT. And now, we’re in the process of extending hours of service exemptions to provide [COVID-19] relief. Fleets are looking for information, and we have to encourage them to find sources that are accurate and reliable.”

At Quality Transport, Schuier explained that because a lot of the HOS waivers have been changing minute by minute, the current fleet policy is to comply with standard HOS regulations and address certain situations on a case-by-case basis. 

Moore added that many NPTC members have taken the same path.

“The primary responsibility is to not burn out drivers,” he said. “They are under extreme pressure right now. There is an emotional toll and physical and health-related issues, so the last thing we need to do is overwork the folks who are dedicating their lives to us and to their country every day.”

“The bottom line is most of our members are staying well within the hours of service caps, and they are ensuring the time off in between shifts is the proper amount of time,” he added, noting that fatigue management is incumbent upon fleet managers to protect drivers, regardless of what the regulations say.

And when it comes to seeking help via the federal CARES Act, Heller explained that the Paychecks Protection Program (PPP) guarantees paychecks based on current fleet and employee size through the end of June. PPP is a good-faith, potentially forgivable loan that is supposed to be used to retain workers, maintain payroll, cover insurance premiums, and make mortgage, lease, rent and utility payments.

“It’s a loan, or a grant if you will, that is forgiven if your fleet and employee size don’t change,” he said. “I can’t emphasize this enough because here is a lot of the information that can be misconstrued. It applies only to W2 employees; it doesn’t apply to independent contractors.”

He added that when it comes to Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, many fleets who applied are already being paid out. And even if a fleet had not qualified for SBA loans in the past, the CARES Act could change that.

Stay tuned for part two for insights on parts availability and preventive maintenance, freight, contingency planning, and what the COVID-19 aftermath could look like.

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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