Securing the supply chain or breaking it? Clash over trucker vaccine mandate grows

The problem facing supply chains isn’t an epidemic of vaccine hesitancy among truck drivers but merely an exacerbation of chronic driver shortages, an industry insider says

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As fears grow that Canadians can expect a jump in food prices as well as empty shelves at the grocery stores, the Liberals are claiming that a contentious mandate requiring truck drivers to be fully-vaccinated is the best way to protect supply chains.


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“One of the biggest threats to our supply chain is indeed the pandemic, and the best tool to end the fight against this virus is vaccination,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in an email to National Post.

But industry insiders and analysts warn that it will be Canadians who suffer under the new rules.

“Ultimately it’s the consumer that pays for this,” said George Pitsikoulis, president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based distributor Canadawide Fruits.

As of Saturday, trucks crossing into Canada must be driven by a fully-vaccinated driver and assuming the Biden Administration doesn’t have a change of heart, a comparable mandate for U.S.-bound truckers is set to go into effect this weekend.

In his email, Alghabra said driver safety plays a key role in setting government border policy.


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“The safety of truckers continues to be our priority. This is an important measure to protect both workers as well as Canadian-U.S. supply chains,” he said.

From the early days of the pandemic, trucking was branded an “essential service” and was exempted from many of the measures imposed on those still able to cross the border.

Expeditious movement of food, equipment and vital pandemic supplies was deemed so important that some provinces opted to relieve drivers of these essential loads of basic safety requirements.

As part of Ontario’s first state of emergency declaration, drivers hauling essential goods weren’t required to perform daily vehicle inspections, weren’t bound by provincial hours-of-service rules, and could operate without speed limiters.


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Essential cargo included COVID-19 medical supplies and equipment, cleaning supplies, food and groceries, paper products, fuel, and certain raw materials such as paper, plastic and alcohol.

The problem facing North American supply chains isn’t an epidemic of vaccine hesitancy among truck drivers but merely an exacerbation of chronic driver shortages that long predated COVID-19, Stephen Laskowski, Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) president, said in an interview.

“What we’re seeing is incredibly high demand for our members’ trucking equipment that’s not reflective of a typical demand cycle in January,” he said, explaining the first two months of the year were typically the slowest for Canada’s economy.


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“If we’re almost outstripping supply and demand now, what happens in March?”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra: “This (vaccine mandate) is an important measure to protect both workers as well as Canadian-U.S. supply chains.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra: “This (vaccine mandate) is an important measure to protect both workers as well as Canadian-U.S. supply chains.” Photo by Blair Gable/Reuters/File

He added, “We don’t disagree with the government of Canada that vaccines are the best way to protect the Canadian public and end the COVID crisis, but the issue comes from its application on drivers during a very fragile time for the supply chain.

“We already don’t have enough drivers, and by implementing this mandate, even despite our high vaccination rates, we’re going to lose more.”

Vaccination rates among the trucking industry are in step with those of society in general, he said.

“The vast majority have been vaccinated,” said Laskowski.

“There’s vaccine hesitancy throughout Canada and all walks of life — including in the trucking industry — but it’s no more or no less than other Canadians.”


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Numbers previously provided by the CTA suggest about 120,000 Canadian truck drivers regularly cross the border, with mandates idling between 12,000 and 15,000 of them.

Meanwhile, only 50 percent to 60 percent of U.S. truckers are vaccinated, according to an estimate from the American Trucking Associations.

The drastic loss of truckers raises serious concerns about whether Canada’s economy can cope in the coming months, said Dimitry Anastakis, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“This is one place where you can see, given what’s going on with Omicron, given what’s going on with the vaccination levels, we don’t need an additional burden,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure what was behind the government’s stubbornness on the issue.


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“I’m a strong believer in getting everybody vaccinated and having mandates in all kinds of places, but it’s not like they’re customer service representatives in the faces of all kinds of people — these are individuals who are very much going on their own, they’re by themselves.”

The lower the supply, the higher the price

While Canada’s supply chain is typically robust enough to absorb serious hits — Anastakis cites both the initial COVID border closures and the Sept. 11 attacks as the two most recent — he isn’t confident about the immediate future.

“It’s not like suddenly Walmart is empty, but it is a kind of gradual, you can’t get X, or you can’t get Y and suddenly choices become smaller and smaller,” he said.

“When it comes to essential goods, you need to have that stuff there.”


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Like Laskowski, he said the government needs to look beyond blanket mandates — and before the empty shelves start outnumbering the stocked ones.

“I’m not clear what the logic is here,” he said.

The trucking industry is already seeing issues which will affect the supply chain

The cost of transporting produce out of California and Arizona to Canada jumped 25 percent last week, said Pitsikoulis.

“The lower the supply, the higher the price,” he said.

Bison Transport, one Canada’s largest trucking firms, is offering signing bonuses of $2,500 to attract drivers. Those costs have to be passed on to customers, Chief Executive Officer Rob Penner said.

And Larry Davidson, president of North American Produce Buyers in Toronto, said the weekend before the vaccine mandate took effect, the company had only one truck available to pick up 75,000 boxes of grapes in Philadelphia.

— With additional reporting by Bloomberg News

Twitter: @bryanpassifiume



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