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Truck drivers struggling to make sure supermarket shelves are stocked

Kevin Morken, a long-haul truck driver who drives between Yellowknife and Edmonton is working longer hours and hauling heavier loads to meet supermarket demands during the Covid-19 pandemic. photo courtesy of Kevin Morken

Pandemic-related shortages at supermarkets are stressful, but not all shoppers know about the stress that truckers face in bringing those products to the shops.

Panic-buying at stores across the NWT has depleted stocks to such a degree that some food items like bread, milk and flour are rationed. Others, like toilet paper and sanitary products, are gone completely, in some cases. 

The knock-on effect of those shortages is felt by truck drivers, who are hauling heavier loads, working longer hours and under less predictable schedules than before the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

Heavier cargo

“As a grocery guy it’s been very busy. We’re obviously carrying a lot of extra freight for the stores now because they’re selling certain things faster than they normally would,” Kevin Morken, a long-haul trucker with Federated Cooperative Limited (Co-op) told NNSL Media on Friday. 

Kevin Morken, a long-haul truck driver who drives between Yellowknife and Edmonton is working longer hours and hauling heavier loads to meet supermarket demands during the Covid-19 pandemic. photo courtesy of Kevin Morken

“We’ve been really pushed to the max and our loads are a lot heavier than normal. They’re stacking the trailers as heavy as they can,” said Morken, who lives just outside Edmonton. 

On one of his regular trips from Yellowknife to Edmonton, he would take a single trailer to Enterprise before doing a trailer switch. 

But since the pandemic he has been hauling a “rocky," a long trailer and a short trailer in tandem. 

Longer hours

Morken used to work about 55 hours a week going between Yellowknife and Edmonton. 

During the most intense period in mid-March he was working up to 70 hours a week.  

“For two weeks I was doing back-to-back from Yellowknife to Edmonton. Which maxes out my hours. In Alberta we’re only allowed 70 hours a week. To do the back-to-back Yellowknife to Edmonton is about 70 hours and 16 minutes.”

I am (now) back to around 55. See how long it lasts.” 

Disrupted schedules

With supply lines across Canada stretched and stressed from more consumer buying, warehouses run through stocks faster, sometimes leaving truckers with nothing to load up on when they arrive. 

“It’s been a real struggle for the warehouses and we’ve been up to 24 hours behind leaving with our loads. Before Covid we were maybe two hours behind, but nothing crazy. Now, instead of being at the store by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, there have been times when I was there at 3 o'clock in morning,” Morken said. 

If he arrives at a warehouse whose stocks are too low all he can do is wait. Sometimes he’ll put himself off duty and get some sleep. 

While sleep patterns and schedules that most of us would consider irregular are part of the job for truckers, the past few weeks have been uniquely difficult. 

Supermarket and warehouse shortages lead to disrupted work schedules and more stress for everyone who works in the supply chains, says Morken. photo courtesy of Kevin Morken

“We’re allowed to be at work for 16 hours after we log the clock in and I’m only allowed to drive for 13 hours. Let’s say I turn my clock on at 4 a.m, so 16 hours from then is 10 p.m. but I can’t keep driving because I’ve used up my 16 hours. You have to have eight hours off. But because of all this stuff with Covid it messes everything up. 

“You’re doing math all the time in your head. It puts a lot of pressure on everybody, the dispatchers, the truckers, the guys in the stores. Then all of a sudden they have to have staff coming in at 2 a.m. There’s a lot of pressure.”

Morken said that for now the panic-buying has subsided and work patterns at the warehouses are slowly returning to normal. 

“Now we’re only two or three hours behind at the warehouse. But we’re still at very heavy volumes.” 

Bathroom closures

Out of concerns of vandalism and fears that people will steal toilet paper from truck stops along the highways, many bathrooms are closed and truckers have fewer options to answer the call of nature. 

“You can’t just go to a convenience store and go to the bathroom. They are either closed down or don't want anyone using their bathrooms,” Morken said. 

“It’s a real hardship. When people work in an office the bathroom is just down the hall. But we don't have that luxury. All the restrooms along Highway 43 are locked up. So we can’t go to the bathroom.” 

He acknowledges that he is luckier than others because he carries a portable toilet in his truck. 

“(It’s) one of those camping ones. So I just take it out and use it in the storage compartment. There’s bag for the waste that you take out and throw away.”

Some of the highway pullouts in the NWT, such as those at Chan Lake and Dory Point have open outhouses, Morken said, but they’re meant for cars and tractor trailers like his can’t access them. 

The silver lining is that warming weather is making the bathroom situation more manageable for many truckers, who won’t have to worry about relieving themselves in -30 C air for at least another eight months.

Barred from some stores

The Globe and Mail reported in March that some businesses in Ontario and Alberta had prohibited truckers from using their washrooms. 

But it’s happening in Yellowknife as well, said Mike Emblau, a trucker with Rig Logistics who makes two trips per week from Edmonton and delivers to the two Independent stores. 

Since the pandemic started, Trevor’s has barred truckers from entering the store, Emblau said. 

“A couple other drivers have been barred from coming in, they told me. On my last trip I tried to go into the store to get some cream for my coffee and the shipping and receiving guy said you can’t come in. 

“None of us drivers will ever shop in that store ever again. Even when we’re able to again we won’t shop in there again, we’ll go to Glen’s instead. One of our drivers put on a mask and gloves and they still kicked him out. They don't want us in there at all because we’re from Alberta and there’s more Covid cases down here, that’s my interpretation.” 

Emblau said the Glen’s Independent allows truckers in as usual and that Trevor’s is the only open business on his route from Edmonton to the NWT that disallows truckers from entering the building. 

In a statement to NNSL Media, Independent's parent company Loblaw said that the GNWT has deemed truck drivers entering the territory as an essential service, and are exempt from quarantining for 14 days, but they should still avoid crowded places.

"Trevor's Independent store in Yellowknife is grateful for the service provided by trucks drivers and is allowing them to use staff washrooms when needed and is offering to shop for truck drivers, to both thank them for their service and to limit their time in store," Loblaw Public Relations said.

Emblau added that the inconveniences caused by Covid are spurring truckers to become more self-sufficient, and like Morken he carries his own portable toilet and a coffee maker. 

Community appreciation

Despite the challenges the pandemic is throwing at truckers, the saving grace is acts of appreciation from members of the community.

“The last time I was in Yellowknife, a guy came up to me at the dock at the Co-op and said ‘what a great job you did backing up. I just want to thank you for all that you’re doing’ and tried to give me a $20 bill.

“Then later a woman came up to me and said ‘we’re so thankful for you truck drivers’ and gave me a care package. I told her ‘I sure appreciate that but it would be better if you give that to the food bank or others who need it.’ People are really realizing how important the truckers are to every day needs.” 

Morken has also noticed more consideration for truckers on the road, with other drivers less “pushy” than before, and perhaps more aware that truckers can’t brake or pass as fast as other motorists. 

“The vast majority of us appreciate people even just saying ‘thank you.’ The fact that people appreciate I'm doing my job really means a lot to me.”