Just two weeks ago, President Trump had personally extended his gratitude to truckers, welcoming representatives of the industry to the White House and calling truckers “the foot soldiers” in the war against the novel coronavirus.
But now, “the American truck driver needs help, and we need it now,” said Santiago, a 21-year veteran of the industry from New Jersey. “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.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The early stages of the coronavirus pandemic presented some truckers with a kind of bonanza, as supermarkets raced to keep shelves stocked with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. But as governors’ stay-at-home orders have remained in place for weeks and the economy has contracted sharply, many truckers now say they’re suffering.
The protest in Washington was one of several grass-roots efforts by truckers staged around the country in recent weeks. One in Houston led to police issuing dozens of citations and bringing charges against one woman, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Information complied by transportation-data firm Inrix showed trucks traveling 13 percent fewer miles by mid-April than in a typical week, a decline the company’s analyst described as modest. But in some states, the drops were sharper: a 37 percent decline in Michigan, the home of the auto industry, and a 17 percent drop across the Gulf of Mexico region, with its energy-focused economy.
The trucking industry did not get a targeted financial support package from Congress during the last round of stimulus negotiations, and the organization representing independent truckers such as Santiago says they’ve had only limited success with the troubled Paycheck Protection Program run by the Small Business Administration.
“We are still concerned that enough small-business truckers are getting what they need to stay in business,” said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
The economic pain truckers say they are facing comes on top of difficult conditions on the road, with long waits to pick up and drop off goods and only limited options for health care suitable for someone driving a large truck.
The Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration, which regulates trucking, has been taking steps to help the industry, waiving limits on driving hours for relief supplies and announcing this week that it would help distribute 1 million face masks to truckers.
Taylor said her organization is seeking more help from the government, including waivers of taxes and fees. The group is also pushing for truckers to gain better access to coronavirus testing.
The American Trucking Associations, which represents truck companies, is seeking the suspension of a 12 percent tax on new trucks and trailers. But Bill Sullivan, the group’s advocacy director, said the industry isn’t seeking dedicated airline-style relief.
Santiago and other truckers have taken particular aim at freight brokers, accusing the middlemen who connect truckers and people with goods to ship of squeezing drivers with low rates.
“It’s gouging,” Santiago said in an interview Thursday. “We can stop hauling, sure, but there’s another crisis.”
After the Houston protest, police there said they would investigate truckers’ claims of wage theft by brokers.
Independent drivers rely on a network of thousands of brokers to connect them with loads of freight, but the relationship has long been contentious. Taylor said the brokers are good at getting paid by shippers while passing 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.”
But the organization that represents the brokers say the truckers’ complaints are misplaced and that low rates are a result of a deeply depressed freight market. As the virus took hold, the nation’s economy contracted by 4.8 percent in the first quarter, with figures for the current quarter expected to show a decline of 30 percent or more. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work.
Robert Voltmann, the head of the Transportation Intermediaries Association, said the rates reflect the state of the economy.
“We stopped shipping much of anything except food, paper products, and things needed to hunker down at home,” Voltmann said in an email.
“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.”
At the protest, Santiago, whose video of the early morning horn-salute had been watched more than 43,000 times by Friday afternoon, choked up as he recorded.
“Trucking in America, baby,” he said, as looked across the street at the rows of cabs. “Trucking in America.”