Trucking in the time of a plague

I stood in front of the large windows in the office we had worked so hard to build. Outside was a strip of landscape bushes, and tall reedy, waving grass than a paved entrance road. To the right, the gate that magically opened when you pull up to it; always a wonder, and a touch of secret pride to watch it activate and slowly slide aside. But straight away, a wide flat yard leads the eye across the pavement, onto the smooth gravel, and across that smooth expanse to a mesh fence.

Our trailers ring the outer yard edges, the rolling wagons of many sizes, styles, uses, but mostly open decks, flat or a single step. There’s a lot of steel and reflective tape, but all in order, ready; a lot of tires sitting. It’s a quiet time and the yard for that moment is silent. The Pandemic has forced a silence onto our world. The view beyond our property is not a suburban or pastoral scene. It is a ring of highways, and overpasses; a traffic blood flow that rarely stops. This is our world, the trucking, transporting, loading: for us, it is the perfect view. We can hear the wind sliding off the sides of the cars, the diesels low growls as they accelerate into higher gears on the on-ramp. But it is strangely quiet, the whistle of the traffic a mere whisper.

That unstoppable movement which I’ve always seen as the lifeblood of the cities, and our transport duties a tiny part of that urban body, now a clotted crawl. The office was so quiet, most of the staff were at home. Myself, Doug our GM, my wife, and one dispatch, are all that’s left. Thank God we have not been totally shut down, sitting at home would eat me alive. I suppose I’m here because I’m always here.

We are careful though, and have COVID protocols in place, the sanitizing, the masks, the distancing. And we are an essential service; most of our work being for the power company but they too are working on split staffs, yet we are fairly busy, fighting one crisis after another; the pipeline glut, the rail blockade, the oil price war, and now the pandemic, and the flooding. How many battles does Alberta have to fight and all at once? But this germ warfare; the lockdown, the isolation, the waiting while a pestilence creeps through the population; so foreign a strategy; a battlefield on someone else’s planet. We are active people, willing and ready to confront, to fight, to slave day and night, but now we must wait and distance ourselves, and sit and wait it out.

The waiting, that is devastatingly hard for people known to be success-driven, fast drivers, impatient shoppers, and fast food gobblers. We line up at Tim Horton’s because we do not want to get out of the car and skip breakfast because there’s no time to cook. We are quick horn honkers, loud laughers, hard partiers, fun drunks, sports nuts, kid spoilers, team drivers, glaze eyed shoppers and bargain snatchers, working fools, and family crazy. But we’re Lousy at waiting. I feel the tension and frustration eating me every day, don’t know if it’s a massive hole I’m afraid of stepping in, or some huge darkness will drop out of the sky on me; It’s a lurking but real COVID tension.

Yet we ‘are’ doing it. The days are passing, the curve is flattening, Deena is my heroine. Every day at 3:30. I checked my blood pressure, haven’t in weeks, it was perfect last time I checked. This morning, peak readings, so high like my mom! I’m not particularly busy, or stressed, till now; not sick yet; so, I checked it 4 times laying down, sitting up, still high. I’m checking again now. It’s perfect, but low 88 over 49. Must be a wrong reading, check again; deep breathe, relax, 139 over 79. What, Better check again. Man, those things really squeeze; 149 over 88, it’s going up, but that sounds more realistic, the lower end of high. Check one more time, 148 over 77. Still pretty high. It’s that damn alien virus invasion. I know it.

The phones are quiet, we are doing what we can to find work, but the sales calls are a little depressing, we try; but for many companies, there’s just no work. Once our units have dispatched, we’re left with the clicking of the printers, soft tone reminders of mail, and the rustle of paper. We check on our people, watch the screen GPS to track our units, check times, and speed. It’s the waiting game. Out the window, the yard sits wide and clean, under the big sky. Our trailers and power units ready. Trucking has traditionally been a solitary form of work. A guy in a truck, so our manner of work has not been terribly affected; there’s just not as much of it. And our other work, the picking, and lifting, we have managed to find enough life in the business to work most of our people every day.

 I see now the wisdom of our early choices, our direction when we tried to find specialty methods, learn and develop custom systems, specialized equipment; just to find work; but now we see these specialties; like our giant knuckle booms, carrying us. Before they were a valuable catalyst for our regular tasks, but now they are one of the fires driving the company, not into the black ledger; but we are still standing, still rolling. I can’t help but feel, that’s all we have to do. Just stand our ground. Our people need assistance, this near economic shut down has eroded their hours, left everyone fearful, nervous. We have a great staff of skilled, competent people, from admin to maintenance, drivers, dispatchers, and operators. All types of character, and skill dimensions. A group of handpicked, trained souls that show up every day, think nothing of leaving town at 3 am, or going on a rescue hot shot at 5 pm, heading into the maddest storms, the deepest bush, lifting a voodoo cluster of odd, off times heavy creations with the confidence of a Jordan or a McDavid.

We could not lose this team and survive. We still had ‘some’ work, and a few bucks left in the bank; so, we announced to all our staff. No layoffs, no pay cuts, all monthly salaried people were to receive their exact same wage and our hourly people, operators, mechanics, drivers, all of them, get a min of 80 -88 hrs per pay period. We knew these brave words would cost us, and it has; but not as much as we thought. Nearly 7 weeks into this thing and the boat is still afloat. We looked at the alternatives, lay everyone off, or as many as we could and still keep the office open, the paper flowing and our trucks rolling. That’s a tough call, we don’t have too many boat anchors we can just toss overboard and still run. Everyone’s pretty important. They ‘could’ get a quick $2000 top-up, I believe, and then about 400 plus a week from Employment Insurance. Unemployment was a more honest term. But 400, or whatever a week? these people have mortgages, rent, car payments, kids, dental bills; they couldn’t survive on EI.

The Federal Government was asking companies to keep their employees on and get reimbursed from the Feds to the tune of $800 per week. All right, so we looked at that, but the first available month we didn’t qualify. After a half month of skidding down the COVID grind ramp, we never lost quite enough money. Hard to lose a lot more cash when your revenues are already thin as a razor. Not to complain though, April will be different, we are definitely going to make that 15% loss ratio, oh wait a minute now the ratio is 30%. Our calculations look like a 20-25 % drop, so nothing again. We will keep subsidizing.

Now there’s a conflict, am I supposed to be happy we didn’t lose enough money to get a little help? Or lose the money, feel worse, but get propped up by a fat check; like taking a starving kid and instead of feeding him a three-course meal, you stick a lollypop in his mouth. There’s always a $40,000 payroll loan, zero interest and you only have to pay back 30,000. Nice! Only if your payrolls too high; like over approx. 85,000 a month, you’re not eligible. Ok, missed that one too. We soldier on. The banks are allowing us to defer the principal payments on some of our loans; not the interest, that would still have to be paid. So, we did that in a few of our smaller loans. And we understand that the folks who did get principle and interest deferred, they will still have to make up that interest in future payments.

Maddening. But there’s a lot of other pain in this world, and in our home province the oil moves by the Russians and Saudis, in the middle of the COVID, seem especially evil, callous; beyond my understanding. But the insurance companies are raising their rates too I hear, and wait, our benefits people doubled their bill just last week. It just appears that the larger institutions don’t feel they have to share any of the pain when they have your signature etched in stone into a fixed rate document that is now out of touch with the new world order. I had just borrowed a boatload of money to buy out my brother; split between him and the banks.

These first two years, the payments have been tough, as Lois and I had anticipated. Now COVID had paralyzed our economy, but everyone benefits if we can stay healthy and get the ship out of this storm. Brother Jim dropped all interest payments for 3 months. That was a start. I know our bankers, honest, first-rate people; we switched banks to join them; that’s a journey in itself, but we kept up a string of pestering inquiries, and wailings. And was there any possibility we could DO something to these now bloated rates on our fixed loans. Finally, we got a meeting, a phone meet with the head of Alberta Commercial, our rep, myself, our GM Doug, our accountant, and Lois, my wife, head of admin, who has worked late, nearly every night for 2 months, ever since the staff left for home.

We were excited, they must have something for us. The good news was yes, they could change the loan, do a SWAP thing, or just break the loan; and we could save tens of thousands in interest per year over the next 3.5 years of the term. Wow, I knew the 3-month interest penalty would sting but over time, this would work out. Hallelujah!! Then it turned out there was another clause in my mortgage penalty detail, 3 months, OR, loss of interest, the greater of the two. And the loss of interest was a six-figure elbow to the head (this is hockey country remember?).  Doug let his pen fall on his desk, got up, and left the room. So the banks were stuck too. They explained that the funds they borrowed from, would penalize them. Ok; who are these vile creatures. Never heard. It doesn’t matter, its just another storm and we have a hell of a boat and a crew of confident prairie sailors.

We’re getting used to being on our own,

With no direction, home.

  Just a sitting stone!


                                                                                                   (Thanks Bob)





Don Lucas

From Encore Trucking & Transport Ltd.

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