I just want to share my experience of trucking here in the United States over the past year.
I took advantage of a truck-driving course back in 2016 that Central New Mexico Community College offered to New Mexico residents, and I reluctantly started a career in my late 50s because it seemed like a good way to make a living for a few years before I retired. I had no idea what was in store for me.
Aside from the actual stress of driving a semi across the United States in all weathers, getting home for a few days every couple of months or so, and having to deal with the awful diet, the increased likelihood of deep vein thrombosis from sitting for 12 hours a day, as well as the endless monotony of driving 500 miles six days a week, with the carrot of around 50 cents a mile dangling before you (truck drivers are rarely paid hourly), I want to share with my fellow New Mexicans just what trucking was for me, a Santa Fe resident of some 15 years in total.
When COVID-19 changed our lives a year ago, I was hauling containers for a national company, Schneider, and was based wherever they sent me. At the time, I was based out of Chicago and ran out to places like Wisconsin and Iowa. I’d fly home for five days every three or four weeks, and get almost enough home time to recover from the experience of sleeping on what was little more than a padded shelf behind the driver’s seat of my truck, a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia with just under 500,000 miles on the odometer.
The pandemic hit suddenly, and since flights were grounded and rental cars weren’t running, I had no option but to drive all the way back to Santa Fe in my rig, hauling of all things, 17 tons of toilet paper to Phoenix. That at least gave me the excuse to stop at home for a few days. Now bear in mind that I’d been running in a high COVID-19 area with no masks or sanitizer available. I’d been risking it because, you know, someone had to do it. As it turned out, an entire case of toilet paper had a damaged carton, so I gave it away to a Hopi woman in Arizona. The tribe hadn’t seen a roll of toilet paper in weeks, she said.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived back in Santa Fe and couldn’t use any public parking spaces, either at state libraries, mall parking lots (I got a superglue-stuck NO PARKING notice on my window, having parked it, with phone number clear for anyone to see, at a completely deserted, massive Santa Fe Place lot) or anywhere else, other than an unmonitored rest area on the interstate from which I had no way back other than to bring my wife out of lockdown to pick me up.
As I looked into parking, I discovered the truck stop company, Pilot Flying J, had proposed a truck stop conveniently at the end of Cerrillos Road south of Santa Fe a couple of years earlier. But it had been vehemently opposed by my fellow Santa Fe residents, who deemed truck drivers not the kind of people they wanted here. So there I was, being told on the one hand that I was a hero of the day for bringing everyone their stuff, but a pariah in my own hometown.
As the pandemic spread, and I found myself in one of the then-epicenters of COVID-19 — Houston, I became so stressed by the fact hardly anyone was wearing masks that I quit my job. I’m 65, embarrassed to say I’m obese, have blood pressure through the roof and my wife has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The idea of catching it or passing it on to my wife was far from an attractive proposition. Hence, I quit a job that would, I felt, very possibly have killed me, thanks to the negligence and pigheadedness of a certain unnamed politician who, thankfully, is no longer in power.
For my life-saving actions? I’ve been denied unemployment benefits and have had no money come in since the end of August. The unemployment office is overwhelmed. Workers don’t answer the phone, and today, after a much-awaited telephone appeal, I’ve discovered I have to wait possibly another three months because my former employer didn’t find the evidence I’d sent them in plenty of time before the hearing.
The reality is that trucking is a sweatshop on wheels. And the system is as broken as it possibly can be. For someone like myself, a fairly literate, resourceful person with tech-savvy and more than a degree of nous, this has been a nightmare. How others — without my resources — cope with a system that seems almost deliberately trying to make people fall through the cracks is just too shocking to imagine.