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The drivers of this economy: Long-haul trucking in the pandemic

Kai Ryssdal and Alli Fam Jan 25, 2021
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Kearsey Rothlander, a long-haul truck driver, says there have been ups and downs for drivers as the pandemic changes what freight is in demand . Joe Raedle/Getty Images
COVID-19

The drivers of this economy: Long-haul trucking in the pandemic

Kai Ryssdal and Alli Fam Jan 25, 2021
Heard on:
Kearsey Rothlander, a long-haul truck driver, says there have been ups and downs for drivers as the pandemic changes what freight is in demand . Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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There are forces, like supply and demand, that drive this economy. But there are also the literal drivers of this economy — the people who get everything from vaccines to food to auto parts where they need to go.

The trucking industry, like much of the economy, has been thrown for a loop by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some drivers experiencing increased demand while others search for cargo to haul.

Kearsey Rothlander is an over-the-road truck driver, or long-haul driver, who also has a YouTube channel called “Truckin Along With Kearsey.” Rothlander spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the trucking economy and life on the road during the pandemic.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Seeing is how you’re a trucker and on the move all the time, Where have we tracked you down today?

Kearsey Rothlander: Today I’m in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. It is 48 degrees and beautiful.

Ryssdal: Well, good. How is the trucking business? Here we are, like 10 months into this pandemic. I mean, so much of everything in this economy moves by truck. How are you all doing?

Refrigerated freight

Rothlander: Honestly, we’ve had ups and downs, but it’s been more a matter of the change of freight as things were not in demand, and then at higher demand than something else. I have food. I haul reefer, which is the refrigerated unit, so food. So we’re always in demand, no matter what.

Ryssdal: Yeah, yeah. So one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you was to get a sense of life on the road for truckers in the middle of a pandemic, and to talk about the role that truck stops are playing in this economy right now. Because all y’all are on the road a lot. You have to stop. You want familiarity. You’ve got some go-tos, right?

Rothlander: Absolutely. When the pandemic first hit, one of the things that the [transportation departments] in each state did was shut down the rest areas. But that’s where we go to the restrooms. And then they shut down the parking. There’s already not enough parking in this country for our trucks. The trucks’ trailers keep getting larger and larger, but the truck stops themselves don’t expand out. Another thing that’s really important is that so many women are coming into trucking pretty much every year. The women coming out here is increasing by about 19% per year. As time has moved on — I’ve been driving for five years — the products are starting to change in the truck stops, including pregnancy tests.

Ryssdal: Oh, wow. Yeah, of course. Right? Of course. You know, it’s so interesting. You say only been driving for five years. You sound, with all possible respect, like you’ve been out there forever, because you clearly have a handle on what’s going on. How do you decide where to stop and what your route is? I mean, do you pick your route based on truck stops?

Favorite truck stops

Rothlander: Well, I pick my route based on, honestly, what’s going to get me there the faster. I stay on the interstates most of the time, and I pick the truck stops — yeah, I will say yes, I will go this route because of a certain truck stop. So Travelers’ Oasis in Eden, Idaho, that’s one of my favorites, just because the truck stop is so big, they’re clean. And there are only four truck stops in America, I have found, that have bathtubs. OK, I’m serious. When you come out on the road, you don’t know what you’re gonna miss until you get out here.

But you said, you know, as a driver, how did I learn so much about trucking, because this is a really serious job. I laugh about it a lot, but if I make one mistake, I could kill somebody. And that goes into playing with the truck stops, believe it or not, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning after I’ve driven 600 miles and I’m exhausted. I don’t want to fight for a parking space. It’s not easy to back these up, you know. And we have so many brand-new drivers coming in every year, and one of the biggest stresses for them is parking and backing.

Ryssdal: No, I hear that. So there you are on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which way you headed and what do you suppose the next, like, six or eight months of this pandemic is gonna bring for you and your business?

Kearsey Rothlander (Courtesy Rothlander)

Rothlander: Well, I am headed not that far from here, about 140 miles to go deliver this load and then I’m going home. I have not been home to New Jersey since the election in November. But my trucking company gave us a big $800 bonus just for staying out through the month of December to try to keep up with the demand. So I’m going to guess that the freight is going to be there. So you can’t really guess it what’s going to happen. But I know I’m gonna have a job.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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