President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate has been controversial from day one. Trucking and other industries have pushed back, putting the mandate's future in question.
The Labor Department has stated that a driver exemption may be in play, should the mandate ultimately go into effect. But, so far, it has been blocked by multiple courts.
How the COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandate has unfolded
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues an emergency temporary standard, mandating that employers with 100 or more employees must implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement and offer a regular testing alternative.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stays OSHA's mandate.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms its stay on the mandate.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is selected via lottery to hear the multidistrict challenge to the vaccine mandate. OSHA effectively pauses enforcement of the mandate amid the proceedings.
Everything put together leaves the industry in a state of flux. Still, smart carriers that would fall under the purview of the mandate are preparing.
"Forward-thinking carriers will have a plan in place in case they need it," said David Heller, vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. "This will vary by carrier and size but will likely involve strong incentives for drivers willing to get vaccinated."
Here's a look at what some carrier executives had to say about the mandate on recent earnings calls:
Soundbites from the head of the C-suite
Hub Group CEO David Yeager: "There will be a certain number of truck drivers that just feel strongly from a personal perspective that they don't want to take [the vaccine]. I am not an anti-vaxxer. I am vaccinated. I encourage people to. But if you try to mandate that to what can be a very independent group ... I hope common sense prevails. And it's understood that, realistically, the truck drivers throughout this pandemic have been out there and getting product to store shelves, and I hope that that's taken into account and ... we get an exemption."
Old Dominion Freight Line CEO Greg Gantt: "As far as the mandate goes, that would be extremely difficult, in my opinion. It's either get vaccinated or do the testing. We are still working on that and trying to figure out how we can accomplish testing the numbers of folks that we would have to test on a weekly basis. Extremely, extremely difficult to accomplish. I don't want to say ‘impossible,' but there are some challenges there that I think are going to be very difficult if it comes to that."
Schneider CEO Mark Rourke: "It'll be problematic, particularly as we would estimate between 40% and 55% of our drivers are vaccinated. And I think that's a number that we see pretty predominantly across the spectrum. So, we're putting a series of steps together ... some scenarios on how we would deal with various elements of what a rule could look like. But all of it is going to be difficult to execute. It's going to be costly to execute, and I think it's going to be disruptive to execute."
TFI International CEO Alain Bédard: "Another aspect that we're looking at right now [is] to add more human resources into our driving fleet and to also eliminate the fact that we're losing guys, because some of them are retiring. Some of them are just saying, ‘You know what? With COVID, I'm out.' Right? And now, if we bring ... the mandate on the vaccine, it's just going to get worse."
USA Truck CEO James Reed: "We started when the president first outlined his desire to do this.
We began, as an executive management team, having a conversation about, 'OK. How would we gather the data? How would we make vaccines more readily accessible to all our employees? How can we work with our vendors to provide testing sites?' ... And so we're moving ahead as if it were to be implemented, and we've got real cogent operational plans to go execute on that."
Werner CEO Derek Leathers: "We are certainly pro-vaccine, and we were setting up onsite vaccination clinics and doing a variety of things to get our vaccination rate up. But I would tell you that I think we are not dissimilar from the industry, which is probably in that 50% unvaccinated range, potentially even a little higher than that. We are preparing and thinking about and modeling what it would look like to route and test. Those costs are very prohibitive, if that was to be the route that was taken."
XPO Logistics CEO Bradley Jacobs: "My personal opinion is everyone should get vaccinated ... there's very compelling reasons to get vaccinated.
Having said that, there's a lot of resistance from a lot of people to get vaccinated. ... And in the trucking industry, in particular, there's probably a little bit higher percentage of people who are anti-vaxxers, so to speak. And if that policy went in right away, it probably would not, short-term at least, have a good effect. You'd see a lot of labor leave the market."
Bracing for impact
Roughly 50% of drivers are currently vaccinated, Heller said, citing a survey the American Trucking Associations conducted recently on its members. Of the remaining half that is unvaccinated, 62% plan to stay that way, the ATA found.
"That means that approximately 37% of the workforce could leave," said Heller. "With a shortage of 80,000 drivers, even 1-2% could be a big problem."
David Willis, a trial attorney with Manning Gross + Massenburg and chair of its trucking and transportation practice group, said that his clients are in a holding pattern.
"Most companies are not anti-vaccine, but anti-mandate."
Chair of Manning Gross + Massenburg's trucking and transportation practice
"Most companies are not anti-vaccine, but anti-mandate," he said. "But our bigger clients are working with [human resources] to figure out how many drivers are vaccinated or not. They want to be ready if the mandate goes forward, but they're just on hold for now."
No matter where the mandate goes from here, Willis doesn't expect a clear decision for some time.
"It's going to be a long, drawn-out legal battle," he said. "I think the mandate is ripe for ultimately ending up with the Supreme Court. The process will have to play out."
Correction: A previous version of this report included a quote misattributed to J.B. Hunt CEO John Roberts. It has been removed from the article.