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Supply Chain Issues: Truck driver shortages and questions on vaccine mandate

Potential for border bottlenecks with truck cargo?

WEST SENECA, N.Y. — There have been national headlines and stories on the major truck driver shortage affecting our supply chain.

But 2 On Your Side dug down to the local level on that same issue with a Western New York company's concerns about the possible impact of a pending COVID vaccine mandate on cross-border shipments.

On the West Coast, those images of backlogged container ships and trucks lined up waiting to help distribute their cargo seem far away. And the Biden Administration is ordering those ports to operate 24 hours a day to ease the problem. 

But locally we can ask someone with 34 years of big rig experience about that situation with the ports and cargo distribution by truck. Jeff Kowal told us, "I think it's the driver shortage cause back in the day they never had a problem." 

Maybe that overlooks COVID complications but the American Trucking Association does put that shortage at 80,000 drivers and it trickles down to Western New York-based firms trying to hire for their own trucking fleets and warehouses here and around the US. That's in part because the average driver age is now in the mid-50s. 

To get a better idea of what's happening here locally we went out to Sonwil Logistics and Transportation in West Seneca. It is one of the largest logistics firms in the region and they gave us a better idea of what's happening in particular with the truck driver shortage.

Help wanted applicant recruiting signs at their front gate signal the depths of that shortage for CDL or commercially licensed drivers carrying over 26 thousand pounds in a loaded truck. They try to lure new drivers with potential salaries from $45,000 to $75,000 dollars and even possible six-figure salaries for specialty heavy equipment drivers.

Sonwil Logistics and Transportation President Jason Ickert said, "It could be weather, It could be not being home for days, weeks or months at a time. So it's not one of those jobs that people would necessarily move towards."

And Kowal adds, "It's a long time out when you first start. With an over the road company - you'll be out you know ten days out with two days off and people don't wanna do that no more."

Companies like Sonwil are trying to adjust those schedules for more off-the-road downtime. They are also trying to pull in younger drivers by seeking waivers from the government for current restrictions which keep a qualified driver under the age of 21 from crossing a state line. 

And Ickert points out there is also a need for more warehouse employees to keep the transported goods moving. 

"I think in the warehouses, around the United States and here in Buffalo, even in some that we own - the labor shortage that's part of the COVID environment has caused some bottlenecks."

There's also a concern that some of those supply chain bottlenecks could happen right here in Western New York with our border crossings with Canada. 

Up until now drivers in both the US and Canada were considered essential workers and could cross the border without restrictions to get cargo across our economically linked regions. But the White House may change that with a vaccine requirement for them too.

Sonwil estimates 50,000 trucks pass over the Peace Bridge on one-way trips each month and truck traffic has been increasing.

Ickert said, "If you have a lot fewer - maybe 30 to 40% fewer drivers that are able to do that - that's gonna disrupt the trade. The goods that they're carrying back and forth are essential. And without those drivers being able to do that is what you're gonna end up with is empty shelves."

Ickert says there may be more transfers of truck cargo here in Buffalo as Canadian-based drivers with a vaccine-resistant independent mindset turn over their loads to US drivers. But again there is that reduced workforce.   

 Lobbying is underway to get Washington officials to change their vaccine strategy for truck drivers. 

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