Trucker vaccine mandate confusion left industry scrambling, some drivers quarantining

Conflicting messaging from federal officials in the days leading up to the implementation of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truckers left transport companies scrambling to recall drivers, and as a result some have had to quarantine, according to one industry group.

The Private Motor Truck Council of Canada just completed an informal survey of its membership in Canada’s trucking workforce in an effort to establish the current vaccination rate and the impact of the confusion leading up to the policy coming into effect.

In response, the council heard from 70 companies. Of those, 25 had dispatched a total of 156 unvaccinated drivers to the U.S. during the approximately 16-hour window in which it was believed that the government had backed down from the contentious policy.

This confusion started after the Canada Border Services Agency told reporters on Jan. 12 that unvaccinated Canadian truck drivers arriving at the border from the U.S. would be exempted from any testing or quarantine requirements when the new policy came into effect on Jan. 15.

However, on Jan. 13 federal ministers issued a statement saying that CBSA had erred, and as was initially announced, unvaccinated Canadian truckers would not be exempted.

After learning that exemptions wouldn’t be offered, drivers scrambled to get back across the border before the mandate came into effect, and companies had to make arrangements to have the unvaccinated drivers’ loads picked up by other drivers, at their own cost.

Ultimately, of those surveyed, 15 drivers were placed in a 14-day quarantine after crossing back into Canada and have been unable to work.

“We already have a shortage, and the shortage just became worse,” Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, told CTVNews.ca in an interview.

Millian had asked for a temporary exemption for those unvaccinated truckers who were dispatched during this window, but the federal government said no.

There has been a temporary agreement, however, to allow drivers coming across with full trucks to complete their deliveries.

Under this allowance, drivers have been told at the border that they can continue driving to their delivery destination while following strict public health measures and then once the load is dropped off, have to immediately drive to their place of quarantine.

Going forward though, trucking companies will likely only be sending vaccinated driver across the border, Millian said. But in some fleets, cross-border work is all that they do and they may not be able to offer them other routes.

“Some of them will be without employment. Some of them will try to find domestic jobs where they only work in Canada, however there's a mandate looming on that as well… We don't know when that's coming, but if they go forward with that mandate [on the federally-regulated trucking industry] then there won't be work for them in the domestic field either, unless they can find a job working for a company that is provincially regulated,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to defend the government’s policy and handling of the flip-flopping messaging on Wednesday, saying that the “miscommunication” was “quickly corrected.”

“We have been clear for many, many months, since back in November, that the exemption for truckers to not be vaccinated would be ending in January,” he said, adding that trucking and logistics companies have long known what the rules would be.

While trucking groups as well as manufacturing and exporting organizations have voiced their support for vaccination, they’ve noted that as is the case in the general population, not all of their workers will roll up their sleeves.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance has estimated that due to the vaccination requirement, an estimated 12,000 Canadian truckers and upwards of tens of thousands more from the U.S. will be unable to work cross-border shipping routes.

Based on the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada’s latest survey, the number of unvaccinated drivers could be higher than previously estimated. Overall, the vaccination rate among those who responded to the survey was 75 per cent.

Millian said that of the 70 fleets who responded—ranging from two to 3,500 drivers per company— 23 per cent have indicated they have their own vaccine mandates in place. Four of these fleets reported that all of their drivers were fully vaccinated, while one company reported that just three per cent of its drivers have been vaccinated.

Some companies have offered bonuses to their drivers to get vaccinated, Millian said.

Under the federal policy, unvaccinated Canadian truckers have to “meet requirements for pre-entry, arrival and day eight testing, as well as quarantine requirements,” as they can’t be denied entry into Canada.

Unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated non-Canadian truckers are being turned away if they are unable to show proof of immunization or a valid medical contraindication to the COVID-19 vaccines.

The United States is set to roll out a mirroring policy on Jan. 22 that is expected to result in unvaccinated Canadian truckers being unable to cross the border.

FEWER DRIVERS MEANS HIGHER PRICES

Cross-border trucking organizations have been sounding alarm bells over the policy since it was first announced in November, saying that requiring drivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 would sideline thousands of drivers, exacerbating the pre-existing pandemic-related trucker shortage, and lead to serious strains on the supply chain.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has considered truck drivers to be an essential service and as a result these drivers have been exempted from COVID-19 border restrictions, because they are responsible for bringing across approximately 80 per cent of the annual $648 billion in Canada-U.S. trade, including food and other key supplies.

With inflation already leading to price increases on some everyday items, the now worsened driver shortage means companies will be bidding for trucks to send the same amount of freight across the border, with fewer drivers to do so, at a cost.

“Those that are lucky enough to get a truck to bring that product across, are going to have to pay more to do so. And if they pay more to do so, they're going to have to pass that cost along to the consumer because the shipper can't afford to eat it,” he said.

“I think we’re going to see two things: We're going to see shortages on our shelves… and we’re going to see increased costs.”

One example where shortages are already being reported is fresh fruits and vegetables. 

“The only ones that are growing here are in greenhouses, it’s the busiest time of year for those food products to be coming across the border,” he said.

Despite these concerns, Trudeau—repeating assurances that his ministers have also made—said Wednesday that the government will “make sure that we are getting what we need in Canada while as always, putting the safety and health of Canadians as our top priority.”

Meanwhile, a so-called “freedom convoy” is being planned by truckers and supported by anti-vaccine mandate groups, with the intention of drivers travelling to Ottawa from across the country in protest of the mandate.

According to a fundraising page as of Thursday afternoon more than $670,000 has been raised to fund the costs of “fuel, food and lodgings” for those making the trip.

The convoy plans to arrive in Ottawa on Jan. 29 with the intention of “taking our fight to the doorsteps of our federal government and demanding that they cease all mandates against its people.” 

Parliament is not back in session until Jan. 31.