When businesses shut down, truckers lost work, risked their health to keep America open

Trevor Hughes

LITTLE AMERICA, Wyo. – James Rodgers settles a little deeper into his comfy seat, his steel-toed boot planted firmly on the accelerator as his Freightliner truck roars at 75 mph across Interstate 80.

“There’s nothing like that view out of the windshield,” he says, looking out the bug-spattered glass. “I’m happiest when I’m looking out it.”

Rodgers, the owner of a small trucking firm, is one of the 3.5 million truck drivers helping keep America running during the coronavirus outbreak that has already sickened one of his drivers and has kept him from returning home for more than two months straight.

Today, he’s hauling 42,000 pounds of cleaning supplies from a Proctor & Gamble plant in St. Louis to a Costco distribution center in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow, he’ll drive tortilla chips from Salt Lake back to St. Louis.

Over the past two months he’s transported bleach to Seattle and chicken across the Midwest, operating under relaxed rest standards approved by the Trump administration during the pandemic to allow drivers to work longer between mandatory breaks.

As his eyes flick from the road to the dashboard displays of air pressure, RPMs and fuel mileage, Rodgers wonders when he’ll sleep in his own bed again at his family’s home outside St. Louis. Before coronavirus, he was home two to three times a week between runs. Then his employee got the virus.

“Just seeing what my driver’s going through, holy hell, I wouldn’t want anyone going through that,” said Rodgers, a combat veteran who broke his back after getting blown off the top of an armored vehicle during a firefight in Afghanistan. “Especially with these asymptomatic carriers, I’m afraid to go home. I don’t want to take it home to my wife, to my daughter.”

Across the country, many of the warehouses that truckers serve have instituted temperature screenings, barring drivers with fevers or other coronavirus symptoms. Rodgers says he wishes he had more convenient access to testing, so he could know whether he and his other drivers have already been exposed.

But even as truckers risk their lives to deliver goods to America, their livelihood is threatened by the pandemic. The trucking industry hauls a staggering two-thirds of all freight in the country, moving 10 billion tons of food, toiletries, online purchases and construction materials. As the economy slows down, there are fewer goods to be delivered. In some cases, Rodgers is seeing rates drop below a $1 a mile, when he needs to be making about twice that to stay afloat.

Analysts at fleet management platform Keep Truckin say there’s already been a 25% drop in the number of trucks on the road each day since March, and a 20% drop in the number of miles driven, and federal statistics show at least 88,000 truckers lost their jobs in April as businesses shuttered. Truckers gathered outside the White House recently to protest wage losses.

Rodger’s tried to get the attention of Congress by making YouTube videos and emailing legislators in hopes they’ll pass a relief package to subsidize freight fees during the pandemic. As he drives, he makes and takes calls on a headset, plotting truck locations and dropoff times, negotiating deliveries and staffing, his mind thousands of miles and days down the road.

He counts himself lucky that he’s in a better financial position than most truckers: After he broke his back and was discharged from the Army, he was given his Freightliner by the St. Christopher Truckers Relief Fund, allowing him to start his own business. Named for the patron saint of travelers, the fund helps truckers when they can’t work because of illness or injury.

Because most truckers are independent contractors, they didn’t qualify for some portions of the existing federal coronavirus assistance. Truckers like Rodgers say what they could qualify for was immediately snapped up by bigger trucking companies, even as President Donald Trump has praised truckers as “foot soldiers” carrying the nation to “victory” against the virus.

These days, a fabric mask hangs from Rodgers’ rearview mirror, and rubber gloves and sanitizing spray sit beneath his seat. While he drives hundreds of miles a day across multiple states, his interactions with strangers are few and far between. The one exception: his American Staffordshire Terrier named Sergeant, who rides in the passenger seat, his wet nose smearing the windows.

‘They take us for granted and we’re doing it for them’

After a quick rest stop at a gas station on Wyoming’s windswept plains, a grinning Rodgers climbs back into the cab, a bag of Hot Pockets clutched in his hand. Although he suffered serious injuries in the Army, you have to look hard to see the stiffness in his back and legs.

Rodgers joined the U.S. Army with the intent to serve his country for at least 20 years.

“I was good at it, really good at it,” he says.

Deployed to Afghanistan, he and his soldiers were patrolling when they came under fire and a mortar round blew him off the top of the armored vehicle. The explosion broke his back and he medically retired from the Army in 2013 with a full disability pension. While his back mostly healed, he became addicted to opiates and narcotics, carrying around a plastic bag full of pills.

“Whenever I needed more, I’d just go to the emergency room and say ‘veteran, broken back, hurts’ and they’d give me more,” he said.

Rodgers says he was missing the sense of purpose that comes from serving something bigger than himself. As he recovered from addiction, he found his purpose anew in driving a truck.

Rodgers remembers waving to passing truckers and motioning for them to blow their horns as a boy riding in his parents’ vehicle. The memory brings a smile to his face, and he’s happy now to blow his specially installed locomotive horn for any passing cars.

Today, he takes a deep pride in fulfilling his missions – accepting orders from fright brokers, and overcoming logistical hurdles and weather-related obstacles to deliver safely and on time.

As he rolls along, a white Chrysler 500 sedan zooms from the left lane and cuts in front of Rodgers’ lumbering truck to take an upcoming exit. There’s no question that driver will soon be eating something delivered on a semi-trailer just like the one Rodgers is driving.

“There’s nothing that people touch that wasn’t on a truck,” Rodgers says, a note of frustration in his voice. “All they see are big trucks that move slow and take up a lane. They take us for granted and we’re doing it for them.”

Trucker James Rodgers sits quietly in the cab of his Freightliner after kicking off his steel-toed boots following a long day of driving across Wyoming and to Salt Lake City.

Living out of a truck to keep the economy going

Rodgers completes eight relatively easy hours of driving across Wyoming and the Continental Divide, and then flips on the engine brake as he descends into Salt Lake City, the big diesel holding back the load so he doesn’t have to touch the brakes. Losing their brakes is a constant fear for truckers.

After crossing the city, Rodgers parks at a truck stop for the night. He’ll deliver his cargo of cleaning supplies when the distribution center opens in the morning, and then collect a load of tortilla chips destined for St. Louis-area Walmart stores. It’s a grueling pace but Rodgers sees it as an extension of his military service.

“That’s the part that keeps me going,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re just doing our job. If we didn’t do what we do, there is no economy, you’re not able to feed your family,” he says.

He kicks off his steel-toed boots, pulls dark curtains across the windows and climbs onto the bunk to pull dinner out of the freezer. While other drivers are getting take-out food or having it delivered to their trucks, Rodgers’ experience with his sick driver was enough to teach him that being careful is warranted. He suspects the man got sick after being exposed to a food-delivery driver.

“I mean, he was bad. He was just awful,” Rodgers says.

Truckers across the country are facing the same tough decisions: Stay on the road, where they can keep earning but might be exposed to the virus, or head home and risk both financial ruin and potential exposure for their families if they’re already infected.

Rodgers says more comprehensive testing for truckers, along with better access to safety gear like gloves, masks and sanitizer would help him feel better about the future.

He sighs as he thinks about home, and home-cooked meals not cooked in the cab of a truck. With quick slices of his pocketknife, he cuts off the plastic wrapper and drops a frozen hunk of meat into a pressure cooker before adding a bit of water and some seasoning. Setting the timer, he leans back against the seat.

He hopes the American public remembers drivers like him: Men and women helping to keep the country running.

“Don’t forget about us. We’re in the limelight now. How long will it be until you’re cutting us off again?” he says. “We’re always on the front lines of keeping America fed. Don’t forget about us.”

Trucker James Rodgers checks a display in his big rig before setting off across Wyoming to deliver a load of cleaning supplies to a warehouse in Salt Lake City.