HARLINGEN — Suddenly in the United States, we have a new class of hard-working heroes, people who haven’t made any Hollywood movies and have toiled away under the cultural radar.
Yet Americans are giving new respect to some far less recognized members of our society who suddenly are in the spotlight: The checkout person at the supermarket, and the stocker refilling empty shelves in a frantic effort to keep up with shopper demand.
And then there are the truckers who deliver those goods.
Scott Pierce, 52, is a Harlingen native who now lives in Houston and drives cross-country for JRayl Transport.
As he waited for a shipment to be loaded into the trailer of his 18-wheeler and ready to head back home, he talked by phone about the difficulties coronavirus is causing in his job, with some states closing rest areas and truck stops and limiting access even when they are open.
At the warehouses where he loads and unloads, most have locked truckers out as a precaution.
“They don’t allow you inside,” he said. “I just saw one guy and he had to go number two and they wouldn’t let them in. So he stood in the grass and rocks out there in Oklahoma. … They don’t allow you in, they don’t want you signing paperwork inside, they don’t want you past their front door. That’s an issue.”
Pierce drives about 150,000 to 160,000 a year, on a route that runs from Texas to Ohio to Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma. He’s one of about 2 million professional heavy-rig drivers hauling goods on America’s highways.
Understandably, the Department of Homeland Security categorizes these drivers as part of the essential critical infrastructure workforce.
“Trucks are moving, delivering goods to grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies and other facilities,” the American Trucking Associations said in a statement. “We remain in close contact with food distributors and partners throughout the logistics network. There is plenty of food, water, medicine, fuel and, yes, toilet paper, in our supply chain. The empty shelves temporarily seen are simply the result of surge demand as Americans rush to stock up. Shelves are quickly restocked as carriers and retailers adjust to the sudden spike in consumer activity.”
Pierce and other truckers run into problems similar to what the rest of us are facing, disruptions in the food chain and scarcity of some items.
“One of the big problems we’ve run into is it’s hard to get in and out of the grocery stores unlike it used to be,” he said. “Used to be real easy to stop, pick something up, and go.
“There’s very little food in the grocery stores, as you know, especially for truckers, the meat, the cheese, the bread,” he added. “Another thing is water has become an issue too. You can buy it at the trucks tops for $3 a gallon but I’m used to buying five or six gallons but now I can only get two gallons at a time. Well, two gallons lasts me about two days.”
Which, he says, has led the fraternity of drivers to a little gallows humor.
“It’s funny. The way we put it is, ‘I’m off to look for water.’ Literally you don’t know if you’ll find it or not,” he said. “You might hit a store or two and not find it and then get lucky and they let you buy one or two gallons from them.”
Long-haul truckers abide by strict federal regulations about how long they can drive and how long they must rest.
Pierce said drivers like him are on an “11 and 14,” meaning they can drive a total of 11 hours and work 14 hours total out of a 24-hour period.
But the usual sleeping spots, at least a lot of them, are not there anymore.
“So a lot of the rest areas are closed,” he said. “We’re trying to aim for somewhere that has a restaurant that’s going to be open. The hot dogs aren’t out anymore, the iced tea you can’t get anymore. All that stuff that used to be readily available you just can’t get anymore.
“If you’re driving at night, you’re screwed ‘til the next morning unless you carry food with you like I do,” he added. “Absolutely it’s really turned into quite a situation out here. Sleeping is an issue but it’s always been an issue. We used to sleep on on-ramps but you can’t sleep on on-ramps anymore. The truck stops are all packed full.”
Some of the big stores are cracking down on big rigs sitting overnight in their parking lots, putting chains and locks through the tires when a driver’s sleeping and threatening to tow his or her rig away unless they pay a $500 on-the-spot fine.
Yet for all these difficulties in these trying times, the brightest moments of kindness stand out even more.
“At Texas Roadhouse, I stopped at one the other day here in Oklahoma, and they actually brought the meal out to me, fed me, and didn’t charge me a dime,” Pierce said. “And Burger King is another one. They actually were closed up of course but I walked around to the drive-thru and they charged me for my meal and had me stand on the side while they prepared my meal and brought my meal out to me. They’ve never done that before.”
As stockers frantically try to keep shelves full, Pierce says nobody should worry about truckers keeping up their end of the logistics bargain.
“So far everybody’s keeping up,” he said. “Of course, drivers are some of the most patriotic people you’ll ever have so everybody wants to do their part.
“I would say keep going just like everybody’s been doing,” he added. “Let’s stick together and do it as country.”