Officials warn vaccine mandates could exacerbate truck driver shortage

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Federal vaccine mandates to be imposed on companies with more than 100 employees may exacerbate a truck driver shortage across the U.S. that could contribute to further supply chain delays, industry stakeholders warned the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.

Vaccine hesitancy is chief among the reasons drivers may not want to get the required shots, said Jon Samson, an executive director at the American Trucking Association. Samson said one reason for the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in this industry is that truck drivers don’t feel the need to get shots due to spending the bulk of their working hours on long drives alone.

“The trucking industry is not anti-vaccination, we are anti-supply chain inefficiency,” Samson told lawmakers at Wednesday’s committee hearing. “A lot of larger truck lines have drivers with vaccine hesitancy.”

The Biden administration published its vaccination mandate for businesses Thursday, setting a Jan. 4 deadline for companies to comply. It is expected to cover 84 million people.

Samson said there were 80,000 open truck driver jobs in the U.S., warning that larger trucking firms fear they could lose a significant portion of their workforce in part because some drivers may leave larger trucking companies for smaller ones or leave the industry entirely.

One area the truck driver shortage could contribute to supply chain issues is the distribution of agricultural products, which lawmakers on the committee warned could eventually result in food not making its way to store shelves should the shortage continue.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott (D-Ga.) called the driver shortage “a tremendous challenge” to the agricultural product supply chain.

“They hold the key as to whether or not we will have a food supply shortage,” Scott said. “We don’t have a food shortage, but the supply is in the hands of our truck drivers.”

While agricultural production has largely remained stable throughout the pandemic, the cost of transporting agricultural goods has increased substantially —  due in part to the driver shortage.

Jon Schwalls, executive officer of Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable, a produce growing and packing firm that operates in the U.S. and Mexico, said that outbound freight costs for his company have risen by 40 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“Now we find ourselves in the middle of a supply chain crisis,” Schwalls told the committee. “Once unloaded, there are not enough drivers, warehouses and shipping containers to keep the products moving to their intended customer.”

The shortage impacts certain areas of the country more than others, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report

Truck availability in 18 of 20 regions reported by the USDA is listed as a “shortage” or “slight shortage” in the report released this week. West Coast routes, including the border crossing at Nogales, Ariz., are among the most significantly impacted, according to the report. Only two regions, Mississippi and the Mexico crossing with South Texas, are listed as adequate. No region is listed as surplus, or slight surplus.

There’s no easy way to explain the driver shortage, Samson said, but the Trucking Association hopes that increased flexibility and financial incentives will help the industry attract new drivers.

One possible explanation is that the industry misses out on recruiting high school graduates since Commercial Driver’s License holders must be 21 years of age to drive across state lines. Other blue collar jobs have historically offered more flexibility for similar salaries, Samson said.

 “We’re looking at recruiting younger drivers right now,” Samson said. “We’re starting to see an increase in hourly wages and we still haven’t seen a lot of those workers come back.”

Tags COVID-19 supply chain David Scott Truck driver

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