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How Can Trucking Companies Navigate the COVID-19 Mandate?

If you have been following news from the feds about COVID-19, it is likely you have heard about the new COVID-19 mandate. COVID-related news continues to impact the trucking industry.

The Biden Administration announced vaccination requirements for federal workers in July. That mandate would cover federal workers and contractors working for the government. Then, on September 6, the Labor Department announced that private sector employees working for companies with 100 employees or more would also be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Employees that do not get vaccinated will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Speaking at the White House, Biden sharply criticized the tens of millions of Americans who are not yet vaccinated, despite months of availability and incentives. “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” he said. He went on to say that the unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders — and some union chiefs — said Biden was going too far in requiring private companies and workers. As a result, expect legal challenged to be filed. Whether they will succeed or not is another question.

Politics aside, there are practical considerations regarding a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for privately held companies. How should trucking companies prepare and what should truck drivers expect? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Why is a Vaccine Mandate Required?

Consider that as of August 2021, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. Some would argue the only reason it is not the first leading cause of death in 2021 is because of the vaccines that have been produced and distributed.

As of this writing, approximately 66.4% of the U.S. population over 12 years old have been fully vaccinated. That is, they have had at least one shot of the J&J vaccine or the recommended two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Yet, even at 66.4% that leaves a third of the entire U.S. population still unvaccinated.

As a result, the Biden administration decided a mandate was in order. As hospitals across the U.S. began to again fill up with unvaccinated COVID patients, and the U.S. economy began to sputter, Biden officials decided that something needed to be done. Yet mandates are controversial, and many believe that their health decisions are exactly that, their health decisions. So, how has the trucking industry responded to this latest mandate to be dropped on their doorstep?

The Trucking Industry and Vaccine Mandates      

The trucking industry is already one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. Many government agencies already have their hands in trucking regulations, from the DOT to the EPA and NHTSA. So, fleet managers are already well used to dealing with new and existing government regulations. Then why do trucking companies and trucking advocates feel differently about this latest mandate?

Larger fleets have already been making moves to vaccinate their workers. And while many of them agree with the vaccine mandate in spirit, fleet managers remain concerned about implementation and logistics. Their concerns are essentially two-fold:

  1. With a truck driver employment shortage continuing to plague the industry, many fleet managers are worried that truck drivers will quit and move to smaller trucking companies where the mandate does not apply (under 100 employees).
  2. There are logistics problems with getting long-haul truck drivers vaccinated or tested weekly.

As a result of these concerns, both the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) have come out strongly against the mandate.

During a regularly scheduled TMC meeting, ATA President Chris Spear said that he was pro-vaccination from the moment they became available, but that a one-size-fits-all mandate like this is going to create additional problems for an industry already struggling to find and retain qualified truck drivers and technicians.

What is Next for the Vaccine Mandate?

Many opposed to the mandate state that it is not the vaccine itself they have a problem with. But instead, it is the arbitrary nature of the mandate they have a problem with. Some question the mandate itself. They ask why there is a 100-employee minimum if this is about employee safety.

There are still many questions as to how the vaccine mandate will play out. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is currently developing the rule under their Emergency Temporary Standard guidelines. They are doing it this way so that individuals and entities impacted by the rule can comment. They want to see those comments before a permanent rule is put into place.

Still, it is unknown at this point how long it will take for the final rule to be issued. We also don’t know how long affected companies will have to ensure their workforce is following the rule. Emergency temporary rules can stay in place for up to six months. After that the formal rulemaking process will begin. Many expect it to be six to twelve months before the mandate is fully in place.

Once issued, the ETS will have immediate effect in the 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction. In states where the federal government does not hold sway over workplace safety issues, such as California and Kentucky, they will have 15 to 30 days to adopt the federal measure or create something similar.

Are Truck Drivers Remote Workers?

There are still a lot of questions surrounding what the final rule will look like and how trucking companies will be impacted. Labor Department officials have made clear that remote workers not in contact with others will not be covered by the rule, provided they stay remote and do not come back into the workplace.

With trucking companies continually evolving in this new pandemic climate, it is likely that many employees, whether back-office employees or otherwise, will continue working remotely. But could it be that truck drivers themselves fall under that definition? After all, long-haul truckers especially, in many cases, already work remotely.

Truck driving is a pretty solitary job. Generally, truck drivers only interact with others when they are at a shipping dock or stop at truck stops. Yet, in those locations mask-wearing and social distancing measures are usually in place. As a result, truck drivers have a far lower exposure risk when compared to other workers.

How Will Logistics Challenges be Addressed?

Unlike employees sitting in office cubicles or on production lines, truck drivers are not clustered together. They represent a lower spread risk when it comes to COVID-19. Much like the remote workers OSHA will be exempting, truck drivers do not contribute to high virus spread. Yet, getting vaccinated won’t be the only logistical challenge trucking companies will need to address.

While fleets will be able to make medical and religious exemptions for the vaccine mandate, others will have to undergo weekly testing if they do not want to get the vaccine. This is where the logistical challenges will be quite high.

Motor carriers will need to route those drivers somewhere they can get tested on a weekly basis, which could throw a big wrench into route planning. You can’t stop the hours-of-service clock for a truck driver to take a COVID-19 test. Furthermore, labs that offer COVID testing typically do not have parking for heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles.

There will also be a question of testing types. Interested parties still do not know if truck drivers will need to take a PCR test or a rapid antigen test, and this is an important factor. PCR tests take more time for testing and results. Until rapid home tests become widely available, testing will remain a challenge for trucking companies.

What’s the Endgame?

In the end, businesses that do not comply with the federal order could be looking at fines up to nearly $14,000 per violation. So, depending on the number of employees not in compliance, companies could be looking at hefty fines.

Employment experts recommend that companies begin encouraging employees to get vaccinated right away. They should begin developing policies, logistics plans, administration, and procedures well before the mandate is in full effect as a permanent rule. Not doing so could find them behind the curve and eventually be fined.

Trucking companies are also encouraged to focus heavily on education and testing. Whether it be through effective communication strategies to combat misinformation, or coaching to address perceived fears about the vaccine, trucking companies must get ahead of the curve. One can debate whether a mandate is the right way to get people vaccinated, but trucking companies will have to comply with a new regulation, no matter how they feel about it. Getting ahead of the curve is really the best option.

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