Trucking companies are already feeling the impact of the federal government’s border vaccination requirement, with a sizable number of drivers leaving the business ahead of the new rule that came into force over the weekend.
As of Saturday, Canadian truckers must be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid quarantine when returning from the United States, while unvaccinated American drivers are not allowed into Canada. Truckers had previously been exempt from border vaccination requirements as essential service providers.
The new rule, which was announced in mid-November, has already had an impact on the labour force. Robert Penner, president and chief executive officer of Winnipeg-based Bison Transport, said his company lost close to 10 per cent of its cross-border fleet of drivers after the November announcement.
“Without question this mandate has created challenges for our industry and subsequently this will drive up costs on all goods originating from or destined to the United States,” Mr. Penner said in an e-mail on Sunday.
Bison, one Canada’s largest trucking companies with 2,100 tractors and 6,000 trailers throughout North America, responded to the announcement by increasing pay for drivers able to cross into the U.S., and introducing a $2,500 sign-on bonus for vaccinated drivers who joined before Dec. 31, 2021.
“We have made significant investments in pay for those willing to continue engaging in cross-border trade. That has allowed us to hang onto the majority of our people but unfortunately and, as predicted, it has not inspired those unwilling to vaccinate to change perspective,” Mr. Penner said.
Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, said the proportion of Canadian drivers who regularly cross the border and who are not fully vaccinated could be as high as 20 per cent. The number could be even higher for U.S. drivers, he added. There are around 120,000 Canadian drivers and 40,000 U.S. drivers crossing the border on a regular basis, according to industry estimates.
Mr. Millian said the introduction of the vaccination requirement on Saturday does not appear to have affected wait times at the border over the weekend. That said, he expects there to be delays in southbound traffic next weekend when the U.S. introduces a similar vaccine mandate.
“Our assumption is it’s going to be a paper process check. And if every driver crossing the border is going to have to show paperwork to prove that they’re vaccinated that’s going to slow stuff down,” Mr. Millian said of the U.S. rules.
The rollout of the new mandate has been messy. The trucking industry was thrown into disarray last week when a spokesperson from the Canadian Border Services Agency said truck drivers would be exempt from the vaccine requirement. The government reversed course the next day, saying the statement was “provided in error.”
The flip-flop and the delay in correcting the mistake caused mass confusion, Mr. Millian said, with companies dispatching unvaccinated drivers to the border in expectation that mandate would not be coming into effect.
“This 16-hour period of silence has thrown many drivers’ lives into upheaval and will leave some having to quarantine at home for 14 days as a result of an erroneous message from government officials,” Mr. Millian wrote in a letter to officials, which he provided to The Globe and Mail.
Meanwhile, food and trade experts are warning that a shortage of cross-border truck drivers could compound existing supply chain problems, adding to inflation in the price of food and manufactured goods.
Dennis Darby, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said about $1.5-billion in goods travels between the U.S.-Canada border a day, and 80 per cent of it goes by truck.
He said that manufactured products, such as car parts or packaged food products, are at risk of being in short supply, since many materials such as ingredients and chemicals move back and forth from the border through different stages of the manufacturing process.
“Most manufacturing companies have operated for decades now as if the border doesn’t exist,” said Mr. Darby. “That’s why all the way through the pandemic and in the early days, we were advocating strongly with both governments to keep those supply lines open, even when you and I were restricted to go back and forth.”
He said he supports the government’s effort to incentivize vaccination, but hopes the fallout won’t be too severe for businesses and consumers.
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food policy and distribution with Dalhousie University in Halifax, said Canadian consumers are likely to feel the effect of supply chain issues more than Americans, especially in grocery stores.
“It’s hard to understand why a vaccine mandate is desired right now in the middle of winter,” said Prof. Charlebois, adding there’s a greater reliance on the U.S. for things such as produce during this season. “I think a delay would’ve been more appropriate.”
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