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‘We’re dying for drivers’ | A California driver shortage has trucking agencies scrambling

Agriculture hauling is seeing a shortage of drivers, and some agencies are worried the shortage will continue into the peak harvest season.
Credit: Sundry Photography - stock.adobe.com
Truck delivering harvested onion on the interstate, California

STOCKTON, Calif. — Weeks before the harvest season ramps up, trucking agencies are sounding the alarm. Simply enough, they’re facing an unprecedented year with driver shortages.

Joe Antonini has been in the trucking business for 35 years, but Antonini Freight Express in Stockton has been a mainstay in the area for 95 years. Even with decades of experience under his belt, he said that agriculture hauling has never seen a driver shortage like this for March, April, and May.

Antonini has been trying to hire drivers in the San Joaquin Valley to move nursery products, but he said hiring efforts are coming up short by about 40%.

With the harvest season demanding an exponentially greater number of drivers, he’s worried the current situation is the prologue for the summer.

“Onions have started hauling now in that same general area (of southern California), and fleets are experiencing a 25% to 30% shortage of truck drivers,” Antonini said. “This typically has not happened in the past, and so that’s one concern immediately. We’re concerned that that’s going to multiply as we get close to the July start of the vast majority of the harvest season…”

Over in Porterville, Scott Daniel, owner of Young’s Commercial Transfer, is seeing the impact firsthand as he juggles the harvest of carrots in the area. He said that he usually runs 200 drivers around this time and runs more than 400 in the summer, but this year, the drivers just aren't coming.

“We’re dying for drivers,” Daniel added. “We’re calling them and talking to them every day…”

One of the big problems Daniel noted is unemployment benefits. He said he’s made calls to workers only to be told that they’re choosing to collect unemployment benefits instead of working. California's unemployment benefits max out at $450 a week, but a federal boost to benefits adds an additional $300 through Sept. 4.

“That is the biggest problem,” Daniel said. “They’re saying ‘Scott, we love you, but right now, we don’t need to come work because we’re getting plenty of money.’”

Antonini said he’s heard similar comments as he looks for drivers throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

A key element is that agriculture hauling has seasonal hiring, specifically with the summer harvest being the peak. Daniel said that some of the drivers he relies on for that busy season are being paid to stay at home.

“It’s not just transportation, right? You can go to any hotel, you can go to any restaurant, (and) anywhere you go in the country right now, you can find that there is just not enough help,” Daniel said.

It’s an impact on the supply chain that has potential for a ripple effect. Antonini said truckers won’t be able to generate revenue, farmers would lose money due to unharvested food, and for people at home, there could be price hikes.

“We see food waste, food spoilage and extreme food price hikes, and during this time of COVID, that’s the last thing people really need to deal with,” Antonini said.

Both Daniel and Antonini are no strangers to the ebb and flow of driver availability. They said shortages are nothing new, but the factors at play this year have brought the issue to a more substantial level. 

Extended unemployment benefits and people not coming back to work is one of the issues they cited, but it’s also compounded with unknowns surrounding AB5, concerns of getting COVID-19, and an aging population of drivers. Daniel and Antonini both said young people just aren’t getting into driving, another reason the driver pool is low.

Hiring is expected to ramp up in June as Antonini prepares his fleet for the transport of tomatoes, peaches, grapes, walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.

But the clock is ticking and the industry is looking for answers to get through the year. One answer could be a load limit increase for trucks. Antonini said the industry is looking to get a 10% variance, raising the weight limit for trucks from 80,000 pounds to 88,000 pounds.

“We still have.. about 50 days to 60 days before the real season starts, however, this clock is ticking and we don’t get to turn back time,” Antonini said.

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