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November 12, 2021 12:30 PM, EST

Werner CEO Voices Concern Over Vaccine Mandate

Derek Leathers Derek Leathers in 2018 by Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg News

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Werner Enterprises CEO Derek Leathers during a recent event said that while his company is encouraging staff to get a COVID-19 vaccination, he noted the nature of the work in trucking — and of the workforce itself — suggests a vaccination mandate is not an ideal path.

“We are encouraging the vaccinations and we are working — corporate America in general — is working aggressively to try to protect their workforce and work with their workforce to make vaccines available,” Leathers said during the 51st annual Baird Global Industrial Conference, which Nov. 9-11 brought together companies from various industries to discuss current trends.

“We’ve done on-site vaccination clinics, we’ll continue to do that,” Leathers said. “But the mandate was a great concern to us.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Nov. 4 announced a rule mandating that private companies with 100 or more employees ensure that their workers are vaccinated or are tested weekly. The rule was set to take effect Jan. 4, 2022, but has been stayed by a federal court. Multiple states have challenged the rule. A challenge from Louisiana resulted in the stay.

The law is also facing legal challenges by a coalition that includes American Trucking Associations and several state trucking associations and industry groups.

While the rule doesn’t explicitly exempt truck drivers, it includes exemptions for individuals who work alone or remotely and have minimum contact with others.

In a Nov. 4 interview, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh indicated this exemption would apply to solo truck drivers.

“When we saw the final rule came out, our interpretation right away was that, clearly, minimum contact and remote work is excluded — you just described the American truck driver,” Leathers said. “We do believe they should be excluded.”

Leathers noted that considerations regarding testing and vaccination can be made when large numbers of drivers gather — such as orientation meetings — but also noted that truck drivers generally have lower rates of infection than the general population. He also believes there is still more to learn about the mandate as it relates to team drivers and driver trainers.

He also suggested that some opted for a trucking career because of the autonomy it affords.

“We also know there’s a group that chose to be truckers because of an independent spirit,” he said. “Mandating things for groups like that can be disruptive at a time when the supply chain can ill afford any more supply chain disruptions.”

In fact, he noted that the business environment remains robust.

“Demand is obviously strong,” Leathers said. “If you go back to the summer of 2020 and, really, through now, we’ve seen volumes that more often than not mimic what a traditional peak season has looked like. Certainly, by Q2 of this year, we saw pre-load levels and volume levels that were very close to what a traditional peak would look like. The network can only handle so much more.”

Leathers said he believes freight demand will stay strong into next year, with a strong peak season ahead, which may exacerbate the industry’s ongoing challenges.

RoadSigns

For Veterans Day, host and Navy veteran Michael Freeze sits down with Army veterans James Rogers, owner of Spartan Direct Trucking Co. and 2020 Transport Topics Trucking's Frontline Hero, and John Baxter, equipment columnist. Hear a snippet above, and get the full program by going to RoadSigns.TTNews.com.

“On the supply side I think the driver shortage is here; it’s real, it’s not getting better, it’s as difficult as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The OEM manufacturing issues are probably more real than I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit of a different ingredient to the cycle that we haven’t seen in past ones.” Leathers noted most companies can’t keep up with replacement levels for trucks because of the production disruptions, some of which are tied to shortages of semiconductor chips.

Leathers also believes the recently passed federal infrastructure bill will drive more demand for freight as materials are moved, but suggested trucking likely won’t see the benefits from the legislation until the second half of next year.

“On the demand side, more workers are coming into the workforce each month, you’ve got GDP growth that is still very strong, a lot of savings rates that have increased during the pandemic,” Leathers said. “You put all that together, and we think it’s definitely stronger for longer and certainly have confidence well into 2022,. In my personal opinion, I think this goes through 2022.”

Werner ranks No. 17 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of largest for-hire carriers in North America and No. 30 on the Transport Topics Top 50 list of largest logistics companies.

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