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Trevor Bent, CEO of Eassons Transportation Group, says there'll be food on grocery-store shelves, 'it’s just not going to be what you and I expect to see when we get in there.'Meagan Hancock/The Globe and Mail

Consumers should expect fewer choices on grocery-store shelves in the coming months, industry experts say, as the shortage of truckers worsens amid cross-border vaccine mandates.

The United States began barring unvaccinated truck drivers on Saturday, a week after Canada implemented the same rule intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ottawa has also said it will require freight haulers who work domestically to be inoculated against the virus, just as airline and railway employees are, but has not announced a date.

Trucking-industry lobby groups say the border requirement will worsen the shortage of available drivers, sending up food prices and slowing deliveries.

“There’s going to be food on the shelves, it’s just not going to be what you and I expect to see when we get in there. You won’t have as many options,” said Trevor Bent, chief executive officer of Nova Scotia-based Eassons Transportation Group, which operates across Canada and into the United States. Its main business is delivering fresh and frozen food to producers, retailers and restaurants. Eassons has 340 trucks, 515 employees and four operating divisions.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance has called for the mandate to be delayed until supply chains have improved, warning that the vaccine rules will sideline about 12,000 cross-border truckers, based on vaccination rates.

How Canada’s fragile food supply chain is being disrupted

Trucking companies lose drivers as new border vaccine mandate comes into force

Even before the surge of Omicron cases, the trucking industry was facing one of the highest job-vacancy rates in Canada, with almost 23,000 driver positions unfilled as of the late summer. This is an increase of 8,000 since the beginning of 2021.

The pandemic has highlighted the labour shortages while increasing demands on the essential workers who ensure there is food on the shelves. Consumers and producers began stocking up on goods at the same time as a key labour pool for trucking companies – immigrants – faced delays in arriving in the country.

In addition, consumers, stuck with closed movie theatres, sports arenas and restaurants, spent more money online and drove demand for the boats, trains and trucks that deliver their packages.

At Eassons, last year’s 30-per-cent turnover in drivers has worsened to 50 per cent. “We’re scrambling like we’ve never scrambled before to move freight,” Mr. Bent said, adding, “It’s going to get worse.”

Omar Alghabra, the Transport Minister, was unavailable for an interview on Friday. In an e-mail, Laurel Lennox, a spokeswoman for Mr. Alghabra, said the vaccines are important health measures that are not having a negative impact on the cross-border flow of goods. “The biggest threat to supply chains is COVID – and our best tool is vaccines,” Ms. Lennox said.

Mr. Bent said 93 per cent of his employees are vaccinated, but five of the 100 drivers who haul freight between Canada and U.S. are not. His drivers make on average just over $70,000 a year, and he has heard the industry average could rise to $100,000 in the next few years. “It’s supply and demand,” Mr. Bent said. “There’s a lot of opportunities for drivers today.”

The trucking business has long been marked by labour shortages. A trucker’s life is often away from family and friends, trying to meet tight schedules in a dangerous environment and the job requires a lot of training.

“It’s a difficult job, especially long-haul trucking,” said Barry Prentice, a transportation economist who teaches at University of Manitoba.

At the same time, competition to keep freight rates low has kept wages down. The typical driver makes less than $25 an hour, Statistics Canada says.

Dr. Prentice said the positive aspects of requiring vaccines should be weighed against the disruption suffered by the freight industry and those who rely upon it. Truckers should be treated differently than flight crews or passenger-train employees, who interact with hundreds of people in a shift. “They were heroes, and now all of a sudden they are not to be trusted,” Dr. Prentice said. “I don’t understand that.”

He predicted that the U.S. border rule would have the biggest impact in Southern Ontario, which usually sees the greatest number of U.S. truckers. “Given the option of taking a load to Pittsburgh or Toronto, they’ll take Pittsburgh,” Dr. Prentice said.

Maxime Arseneau, an economist at the Conference Board of Canada, said as many as 20 per cent of U.S. truck drivers crossing the border could be barred by the new rule, exacerbating the supply problems.

“This comes at the time of the year when Canada is more dependent on U.S. exports, especially for fresh-food produce that won’t grow during our winter months,” Mr. Arseneau said.

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