High gas prices and shortages hit trucking industry, as nation critically needs gasoline and goods transported

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Lee Klass is a long-haul trucker who has spent most of the past 50 years working behind the wheel.

The cost of doing his job spiked dramatically this week.

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Klass, 73, drives a Freightliner. He's not hauling gasoline, but he's feeling the pinch of gas shortages and higher prices in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. He's paying $3.60 a gallon, far more than the $2.50 to $3 a gallon he paid during much of the pandemic.

"I start to freak out when it hits $4 a gallon, and I'm paying almost $1,000 to fill up a 240-gallon tank," said Klass who was in Rhode Island on Wednesday and drives long hours daily. "For me to run across country in my truck, it takes about three fill-ups from the west coast to east coast, and that is a lot of money," he added.

The gasoline crunch has added a new layer of difficulty to what was already considered a difficult job. The trucking industry - which requires long hours and tends to churn through workers, resulting in comparatively higher turnover - is the critical circulatory system for the economy, transporting consumer goods to and from warehouses, where they make their way to consumers' homes. As the nation claws its way out of the pandemic recession, truck drivers are key to ensuring continued consumer spending, which contributes to nearly 70% of economic growth.

Related: The 1970s gas shortages that wreaked national havoc

Higher prices and gas shortages, even temporary ones, make it a lot harder for truckers to deliver goods. And as consumer spending heats up, the economy needs more truck drivers, not fewer, especially to help alleviate the current gasoline shortages.

Tommy Forrister has been a trucker for 22 years. He transports gasoline for Morgan and Hunt Oil Company in Rome, Ga., and returns to his family in Cedartown, south of Rome, every evening. The current gas shortage has lengthened his workday. He's been putting in 14-hour days, often confronting long lines just to refuel.

"It might be 30 minutes," Forrister said. "It might be two hours. Depends on how many trucks are in front of you."

On Wednesday afternoon, Forrister was hoping to pick up 8,000 gallons at a TransMontaigne terminal in Doraville, which is home to a number of tank farms. He'd been up since 2 a.m.

James Casey, a sales rep for Morgan and Hunt, was riding shotgun as Forrister's backup driver. Both men have witnessed previous shortages and were philosophical about this one.

"We've seen this before back years ago, when it went to $4 a gallon when the terminals got hit by a hurricane," Casey said.

He recalled rolling up at a tank farm at 10:30 p.m. to be the first one in line to get loaded at midnight when the fuel allocation was finally made available. Yet, sometimes no amount of planning worked in his favor.

"We have rode around all day long and not got the first drop," he said. It hasn't been that bad for the company's drivers this time around. "They've each gotten loaded at least once."

And some worry the gas crisis could exacerbate an overall shortage for some truck drivers, particularly tanker drivers and others making local trips.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a picture of a highly competitive market for local, short-haul truck drivers. The industry completely recovered jobs lost in the recession at the end of 2020, and since November, wages are up 4.6%, indicating employers are locked in intense competition for scarce workers. Those figures go through March, the most recent month for which data is available at this level of detail. The market doesn't yet appear as tight in other parts of the trucking industry, but there are signs it may be heating up.

Ryan Streblow, interim president of National Tank Truck Carriers, a trade association, said the country has 10% fewer tanker drivers than it did before the pandemic. "And you magnify that challenge when you have a disruption in the supply chain."

Albert McCann, a terminal dispatcher for Penn Tank Lines, a petroleum hauler in Doraville, Ga., holds a similar view. McCann has spent 30 years in the business and said there is, in fact, a pandemic-related shortage of tanker drivers.

"During the pandemic, nobody was driving anywhere," McCann said. "Schools were out, so we weren't taking fuel to the bus barn. We weren't taking to the Greyhound bus. We weren't delivering a lot of jet fuel. Gas stations were slow because they weren't selling anything. So, a lot of drivers moved to other avenues, other places, other industries."

However, not everyone agrees there is a driver shortage.

"The idea of a driver shortage is a myth that has been around for decades," said Norita Taylor, director of public relations for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade organization representing truckers. "The real problem is high turnover, particularly in the truckload or long-haul sector of the trucking industry."

Taylor says there is a tremendous amount of "churn" in long-haul trucking with a turnover rate of 90% to 100%.

"That means if you are a company with 100 drivers, a year from now you have completely turned over your personnel," she said. "How safe is that? How is that safe for our roads? How is that good for our industry?"

Todd Spencer, president of OOIDA, echoed those concerns.

"Safety is compromised when you are continuously recruiting and hiring brand new people," he said. "The most important thing is safety. Have the drivers had real meaningful training and time on the road, actual experience? What are other people on the road likely to do that can cause an accident?"

Spencer said not every sector of the trucking industry has a problem retaining drivers. The key, he maintained, is pay and benefits. A $40,000 to $50,000 salary might sound attractive on the surface until a driver realizes the hours worked add up to 60 or 80 hours per week.

"The guy who is brand new off the street is going to make the same money you do," Spencer said. "The occupation has not done anything to make itself more attractive to employees in 30 years, since deregulation."

With 450,000 to 500,000 commercial driver's licenses issued every year, there are plenty of drivers, Spencer said. They just might not be where they are needed when a crippling cyberattack hits a major pipeline.

"You've got higher than normally expected demand because of the pipeline shutdown," Spencer said. "If your demand suddenly doubles, and you're not set up for it, you're not going to be able to cover all the business you're offered."

He said there are plenty of gasoline haulers in the country, but some might have to temporarily relocate to help with the surge in demand.

Trucker Lee Klass won't be among them. He doesn't haul gasoline and, besides, he likes his nomadic lifestyle.

"Most fuel tank drivers go home at night," Klass said. "It's local work in every sense of the word. These guys have an opportunity to have a family life. It's not a job I would like, but it's steady."

Klass figures he'll be on the road another five years before he retires. Somehow, he's made this life work, but when younger, would-be drivers ask him about life as a long-haul driver, he levels with them.

"The first question I ask them is, 'Are you married?' And the next question after that is, 'Do you want to stay married?' You're going to have to have a long talk with your spouse. Drivers, men and women, are gone for weeks or months on end. Spouses ask, 'How come you're gone so long and earn so little?'"

         

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The Washington Post's Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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