Truckers warn vaccine mandate at U.S. border could worsen supply chain issues

New rules coming into effect Saturday mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for truck drivers crossing the Canada-U.S. border could compound supply chain issues in a sector already facing a labour shortage, say representatives from the country’s trucking industry.

Truck drivers entering Canada from the U.S. will need to show proof of vaccination at the border starting Jan. 15, under a policy announced last November that will remove the vaccine exemption in place for essential workers. Unvaccinated Canadians trying to cross the border back into the country would have to take a test and enter isolation, while Americans without the jab would be turned away.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) projects 10 to 15 per cent of cross-border truckers will be sidelined as a result of the new policy, with roughly 12,000 drivers from Canada affected.

Read more: Trucking vaccine mandate will have negative impact, argues U of M prof

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Estimates from the Canadian government, however, have come in lower at roughly five per cent, according to a source quoted by Reuters over the weekend.

Stephen Laskowski, president of the CTA, says the percentage of unvaccinated drivers varies regionally in Canada, as do rates among the general population.

But Canada’s aging trucking workforce was already facing a labour shortage ahead of the mandate, he tells Global News, with about 23,000 vacancies at the end of the third quarter last year.

“We can’t afford more vacancies, not with the supply chain in the state it is,” Laskowski says. “We need more truck drivers, not less.”

Prices could rise as drivers, supply become scarce

Supply chain issues that marked the latter half of 2021 have persisted in the new year, with labour shortages striking the shipping industry and production hubs such as China.

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“We’re going to see prices skyrocket for groceries, for everything, if we see tens of thousands of truckers unemployed,” Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said last week in criticism of the government policy. He suggested there could be “reasonable accommodations” like regular testing.

But a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra’s office said Tuesday that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of concern is itself a significant source of supply chain strain.

“With the increased number of cases as a result of the Omicron variant, we are seeing across the country and around the world, an impact on essential sectors that can result in labour shortages, putting a strain on sectors like transportation. We also know that vaccination is the best way to fight this pandemic, to protect the health and safety of workers, and to keep our economy moving,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Global News.

Reuters’ source also said the federal government does not “anticipate significant disruptions or shortages for Canadians” as a result of the mandate.

The impact of the vaccine mandate is already being felt in the North American market, Laskowski says, as logistics companies shift their schedules and plans around the impending shortfall of drivers.

Some companies have been “very aggressive” in securing scarce truck deliveries in advance of the disruption, leaving some sectors and smaller players left with long waits at the delivery docks.

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With fewer drivers on the road to deliver goods from the U.S., expect emptier store shelves in the near future, says Chris Jamieson, spokesperson for Westcore Links in Nisku, Alta, a hamlet just outside Edmonton.

“Everything that you get comes by truck. So, if we have less drivers and less trucks on the road, your stores aren’t going to fill up as fast,” he tells Global News, adding the scarcity is also likely to contribute to inflation.

Most drivers already fully vaccinated

Jamieson says the vast majority of employees at Westcore, a company with about 40 drivers, are fully vaccinated, with less than five to get the shot. That’s well above provincial averages, with estimates that the unvaccinated proportion of Alberta’s trucking workforce is as high as 30 per cent.

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Jamieson says he’s confident those at his company who haven’t gotten vaccinated will likely get the jab in the future. In the meantime, he says Westcore is planning to accommodate those drivers by giving them domestic trucking routes.

“We’re not going to get rid of them. They’re good operators. They’ve been with us for a while. So we’re not just going to kick him to the curb just because they haven’t got it done yet,” he said.

Westcore’s Lechie MacArthur has been a driver for 40 years, eight of them in Canada. He says he’s not vaccinated because he hasn’t seen data that shows the inoculation will be effective against transmitting or contracting the disease.

Health Canada says two doses of the mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna formulations, as well as a booster shot, are effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.

Read more: Pfizer’s vaccine 70% effective against hospitalization from Omicron, study shows

MacArthur says he’s against the mandate, but is happy to run domestic routes in the meantime, and believes most of his peers share his opinion.

“They are here because of the job, because they want to be truck drivers. They don’t care whether they’re driving in Canada or America,” MacArthur says.

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Laskowski says the option to shift drivers to domestic routes may be a stopgap measure since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said all workers in federally regulated industries will eventually need to get the shot.

“That may be a very short-term solution … for these drivers. But the reality is, it’s expected that option won’t remain for very long,” he says.

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Also at Westcore, fully vaccinated driver Justin Chrobot says his colleagues will have to make the “personal choice” whether they will not get the shot or risk losing their livelihoods.

He says that once he saw data coming from the U.S. and Alberta showing the vaccine’s effectiveness, he saw no reason not to get vaccinated.

“It just kind of made sense to get the vaccine. I mean, the data shows that it does prevent serious outcomes,” he says. “If you look at the cost of an ICU bed every day, it’s a substantial amount, unsustainable for the government to pay for that.”

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Timing, border protocols the concern

Laskowski says the CTA isn’t against the mandate itself and supports efforts to increase vaccination across the industry.

“The issue is how we go about it and the timing,” he said.

It’s likely too late to kick the deadline down the road, especially as U.S. officials have signalled plans to implement a similar mandate for truckers on their side of the border.

Now, he’s hoping to see clarification on the compliance system put into effect at the border so fully vaccinated drivers aren’t slowed down on their routes.

Global News has reached out to CBSA for details on how the vaccine protocols will be put into effect on Saturday, but did not hear back before publishing.

— with files from Anne Gaviola, Dan Grummett, Reuters

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