Photo: Max Anderson/Unsplash
Seattle 2020 Protest Max Anderson Unsplash

COVID-19 lessons can help fleets prepare for civil unrest

June 19, 2020
COVID-19 turned truckers into heroes. One wrong move during these ongoing national protests could make them villains. Communication between fleets and drivers has never been more important.

In March 2020 the world finally grasped what a major threat an insidious novel coronavirus from China’s Wuhan region was to people with compromised immune systems. Though the United States’ economy was brought to a standstill due to the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, truckers kept going, delivering needed supplies to those sheltering in place.

Trucking and logistics companies, as well as truck stops and shipping and receiving hubs, acted quickly to obtain personal protective equipment for drivers and sanitize public areas to slow COVID-19’s spread. Fleets regularly updated drivers on hotspots, such as New York City, where they had to be more careful. And for the most part, it worked. While COVID-19 was (and still is) devastating, the recovery seems to have begun.

Now there is a new threat, steeped in 400 years of racial animosity and brought to a boil by massive unemployment, months of quarantine, and some very public, very tragic interactions between white police officers and Black citizens that ranged from negligent to downright criminal. Most of these acts were caught on tape, and a large swath of America has taken to the streets in protest, impatient and untrusting of the criminal justice system.

The first of these outbreaks began in Minneapolis to protest the death of George Floyd, an African-American man suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill who died following an interminable 8 minutes and 46 seconds of having Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. More tragedy followed as peaceful protests on May 26 gave way to mob rage by nightfall. Riots overtook the city and spread across the nation, with many large cities succumbing to a virulent violence, where looters and rioters burned businesses and attacked anyone who got in their way.

In downtown St. Louis on May 30, a FedEx driver in a double trailer dragged a protester caught in the gap between the trailers, who later died.

On May 31, an angry Minneapolis mob appeared in the path of a trucker named Bogdan Vechirko, who was not stopped in time by police shutting down the Interstate 35W bridge. The fuel tanker he was driving stopped just before hitting anyone, which itself was something of a miracle.  Some in the crowd swarmed the truck after it came to a stop and pulled the 35-year-old from his cab. Vechirko suffered minor injuries before some in the crowd were able to him safely to authorities. He was arrested but later released without charges.

The incident recalled the horrific attempted murder of trucker Reginald Denny in 1992 riots after the Rodney King verdict. Truckers on social media even started to make veiled threats of what they would do to avoid becoming the next casualty.

Since then another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by police in Atlanta, though under very different circumstances than Floyd. On June 12, he resisted arrest, stole a taser from one of the arresting officers and appeared to point it at the police who then shot him several times. On June 13, protesters blocked Interstate 75. Traffic came to a standstill, but thankfully, a reckoning between truckers and protesters did not occur.

All of this context is extremely important for fleet owners, because they need to be aware of how volatile the situation is right now. Seattle has given way to anarchists claiming part of the downtown area as the Capital Hill Organized Protest (unless the name has changed again).

In Tulsa, President Donald Trump plans on holding his first public rally since the quarantine started. The timing and location are of note, as Tulsa is the site of the most egregious racial atrocity in America in the last century, if not ever, as 300 Black individuals were killed by a mob of barbaric white townsfolk. He did move the rally to June 20 from June 19, or Juneteenth, a day revered in American history as the day the Emancipation Proclamation was able to be enforced in Texas, more than two years after President Lincoln’s executive order and two months after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

Meanwhile, protests have increasingly called for defunding and sometimes abolishing the police. This could create massive disruptions to the supply chain where even a global pandemic could not.

A recent poll from CDL Life found 78% of truckers would not deliver to areas where police are defunded/disbanded. Earlier in the week, the officer who shot Brooks was charged with felony murder, leading to Atlanta police to themselves protest by calling off with a sickness deemed the Blue Flu, as many believed the charges to be disproportionate to the officer’s reaction.

This is not to say truckers will all stop delivering to any hotspot cities.

Kellylynn McLaughlin, a dry van over-the-road driver for Schneider who in the past month delivered to Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago, said she was not apprehensive. That’s because she is in constant communication with her fleet managers.

“We have tablets that receive messages and our locations are monitored,” said McLaughlin, who has driven for the fleet for more than four years. “Schneider is good about contacting us if we are ever in a risky area. This includes all situations like flood/weather warnings and high theft areas, as well.”

Planning before entering these potentially risky areas is also crucial.

“We are encouraged to trip plan well, and we have the right to stop work if we feel unsafe,” she said.

McLaughlin also asserted being a female also does not make her feel any more vulnerable, nor does she believe a firearm would be her best defense.

“My brain is my best protection,” she said. “I aim to make smart, well-planned stops every day.”

WorkHound, a front-line worker app created to provide a feedback loop between drivers and management, has also found communication and planning, so instrumental in overcoming COVID-19 fears, are the best way to avoid putting the heroes of early 2020 in harm's way.

“We saw the mentions about the COVID-19 spike [on the WorkHound app in late winter/early spring],” said Max Farrell, CEO and co-founder of WorkHound. “So companies were able to get a pulse on what uncertainties their drivers were facing, and put together a game plan to address them.”

In this crisis, the same approach appears to be useful.

“We're seeing a similar approach with the recent protests in cities around the country,” Farrell said. “Drivers are sharing concerns and companies are realizing this is a top issue to get a handle on.”

He read one comment off the app as an example of how some truckers are generally feeling: I enjoy working for this company very well. However one concern I have is with all the protesters shutting down Interstates and hijacking trucks. Do we the trucker have the right to keep moving the truck forward if we feel our lives are in danger, even if that means running people over?

Farrell did not see any evidence of fleets condoning such action or encouraging violence in any way. They did use such legitimate fears as a springboard for providing positive strategies.

He paraphrased what fleets are telling drivers, which is sound advice for everyone:

Stay calm and be professional. If you don't feel comfortable, do not take chances. If in doubt, find a safe haven shut it down and communicate with your driver manager. And if a situation escalates beyond your control, please call the police.We also want to remind you that in some circumstances, your load could be a target. Be smart about where you parked your truck and don't talk to others about what you're hauling.

WorkHound's blog also some more insights and sources to help fleets, which we encourage all fleets to check out.

The most important thing, aside from avoiding immediate danger, is instilling confidence in drivers so they don’t respond from a place of fear. You want drivers like McLaughlin, who are vigilant, but not afraid.

And if the madness of 2020 ever stops, when it comes time for drivers to evaluate what they want in an employer, that confidence can go a long way in retention.

“Companies will be remembered for how they responded during these times of crisis,” Farrell said.

By planning and communicating, fleets can improve their chances of being remembered for their heroism in the face of danger, and not for what a few bad drivers may do if these protests do escalate.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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