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New Normal: Trucking industry adjusts, perseveres through pandemic

A truck crosses the intersection of Huron Avenue and Port Crescent Street in Bad Axe on a sunny afternoon July 21.
Teresa Homsi / Huron Daily Tribune
A truck crosses the intersection of Huron Avenue and Port Crescent Street in Bad Axe on a sunny afternoon July 21.

Paul Cuddie was making his usual delivery to a Dollar General in Milwaukee, but this time he was bringing special cargo.

“(As I came) around that corner, (a crowd) gave me, the truck driver, a round of applause for delivering stuff,” Cuddie said.

That “special cargo” was toilet paper, and Cuddie was met by a group of 20 people outside the store, cheering him on.

This happened in the height of the infamous toilet paper shortage last year. Other products in high demand included cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, all of which Cuddie was tasked with delivering across Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois.

Cuddie has been a trucker for the last 17 years based in Gladwin, but he said he had never seen any of the anomalies COVID-19 created in the industry before.

“(It was) noticeably different, just the demand for stuff, essential stuff, cleaning stuff and everything else,” Cuddie said. “Never experienced anything like this before.”

While the pandemic canceled events and crippled certain industries, it also caused an unforeseen shift in supply chains.

With restaurants, businesses and venues indefinitely closed, consumer demand changed in unpredictable ways. Meanwhile, online orders and retail demand went up.

This “wonky demand” was compounded by supply shortages, backlogs and limited drivers to make deliveries.

Mickey Blashfield is the president and CEO of the Michigan Trucking Association. He said he’s heard estimates that it will take until the middle of 2022 to return to normalcy since demand trends are still shifting with the fast reopening.

“It's going to take some time for everybody to get back on the same page, in the same cadence, in the same supply mentality when the goods are more readily available,” Blashfield said.

Blashfield said the trucking industry is used to responding to natural disasters, but they’re typically isolated to regions. He said the whole nation pushed a pause button this past year - and there was no protocol prepared for that.

“The trucking industry had a little more immediate pop quiz that we've had to address at every step of the way because people still need goods,” Blashfield said. “It's just in a different manner, in a different quantity, and maybe even in a different location.”

Blashfield said it took a lot of meticulous coordination and flexibility to adjust to the constantly changing circumstances. To meet heightened demand and driver shortages, he said overtime limits were loosened to allow truckers to put in more hours a week.

“A lot of older drivers basically said, ‘Why do I want to deal with this anymore?’” Blashfield said. “This is crazy. I have a family that's sitting at home safe and not having to go out in the prospects of being infected. We had a lot of older drivers that basically hung up their driving wheel.”

Worker shortages were - and still are - a significant challenge to the industry.

Blashfield said the MTA and distributors have worked to increase benefits and recruitment efforts, especially targeting young people. He said there’s also been a push to make it easier to renew commercial driving licenses for people with substance use violations that can demonstrate sobriety.

Derek Vanblargan is the operations manager for Northern Logistics based in Clare. He said the pandemic forced the company to make changes to otherwise consistent schedules. About 10% of the workforce was also sitting on the bench with COVID-19 symptoms.

“A person that was used to going, say, from here to Detroit every single day, they had to adjust and adapt,” Vanblargan said. “That run went from five days a week to three days a week, and some of them were down to none.”

Business took a dive during the pandemic, but Vanblargan says things are operating up to speed again.

With more work now than before, he said the pandemic has allowed distributors to be more picky about the customers they work with.

“I think our industry in general has always been one that's kind of been treated on the lower end of things,” Vanblargan said. “I think that now everything's happened and things have rolled out that hopefully, we'll be treated a lot better in the future.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Vanblargan foresees the trucking industry becoming even more dynamic and resilient. Truckers like Paul Cuddie, may never be applauded again for delivering toilet paper, but those who stuck it out during the pandemic are committed to the trade.

Blashfield said trucks aren’t just rolling up and down the road to advertise, but they’re hauling goods people need.

“The men and women of the trucking industry really deserve a big pat on the back for the way they conducted themselves and went above and beyond the call of duty as everything was changing around them,” Blashfield said.

Blashfield said truckers are still out there, working on the road, in spite of the challenges. He just hopes people can remember: if you got it, a truck brought it.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.