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Canada: Cross-border vaccine mandate will further disrupt supply chains, say truckers

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Reese Evans said a looming cross-border vaccine mandate is costing his trucking company up to 20 per cent of its drivers.

That’s a time when worker shortages have already “cobwebbed” about a quarter of the Lethbridge-area hauler’s fleet that specializes in hauling raw materials between the U.S. and Canada.

“There are some major, major repercussions about to happen from this,” said Evans.

Starting Saturday , Canada will require all truckers entering from the U.S. to be fully vaccinated or be required to enter a 14-day quarantine. The mandate is the first policy measure taken since the pandemic began that could limit cross-border trucking traffic.

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Evans says the measure will not only impact his industry, but consumers will also pay the price.

“Freight rates have already gone up 20 to 30 per cent in the past six months and it’s going to be going up a lot more,” said Evans.

“Who’s going to be paying for that? Consumers. It’s going to be crazy.”

Albertans can expect to pay more for cross-border goods ranging from groceries to building materials, he said.

And those challenges involving a tenuous supply chain will only grow, he said, when the U.S. implements its own vaccine mandate for commercial truckers heading south across its border on Jan. 22.

Both countries will turn back foreign drivers who aren’t fully immunized.

Unvaccinated drivers are fleeing companies like his to try their luck in the domestic market but with a population of just 38 million people, there’s only so much demand for them, said Evans.

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The Canadian Trucking Alliance says there’s already a shortage of about 18,000 drivers in an industry that’s having difficulty replacing aging and retiring operators with new blood.

Another 10 per cent of the cross-border workforce, or 16,000 drivers, could be curbed by the mandate, it says.

The federal government estimates five per cent of drivers will be impacted and that the effect of the rule will be modest.

Ottawa’s new mandate reversing 22 months of policy that exempted cross-border commercial from such restrictions as essential will only squeeze the industry further, along with consumers dealing with the highest rate of inflation in nearly two decades, says the sector and its clients.

The Petroleum Services Association of Canada is calling for the federal government to delay implementing the new rules, saying it’ll further pressure supply chains and equipment movement.

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“The implementation of vaccination mandates for cross-border truck drivers will only aggravate things further and add to the strain on an industry that has already faced significant adversity over the last few years,” the group said in a statement.

“The Petroleum Services Association of Canada calls on the government to delay the deadline for mandatory vaccination and work to find a revised timeline that minimizes labour and supply chain impacts.”

An Alberta food distributor said he expects changes at the border to worsen a “horribly broken” supply chain and lead to higher grocery bills.

“I’m sure it will (increase prices) but it could be a good excuse to take a couple more points (of profit) in the market,” said Spencer Robertson of Wild Rose Foodservice Distributors Inc.

But in the face of the wildly infectious Omicron variant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is standing firm on the need to quickly tighten border restrictions to slow the disease’s spread.

Chris Nash wouldn’t say plugging COVID-19 holes at the border is pointless given the wholesale spread of COVID-19 throughout Canada.

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But the president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association said Ottawa should at least hold off on its new immunization mandate in an industry that’s still essential, and hurting.

 Trucks parked at the Road King truck stop in Calgary on April 2, 2020. © Gavin Young/Postmedia Trucks parked at the Road King truck stop in Calgary on April 2, 2020.

“We definitely support the value of getting the jab but we haven’t reached everyone in the industry,” he said, adding he suspects there’s a large percentage of unvaccinated truck drivers in Alberta than the national average.

With 4,000 commercial driver vacancies in Alberta, there was a reduction of about 4,600 class one drivers’ licence holders from 2019 to 2020, said Nash.

“Almost all of those were under the age of 55,” he said.

A lot of that was driven by COVID-19 hardships on the road that only added to the stigma of driving a big commercial vehicle, said Nash.

While the main Alberta border crossing to the U.S. at Coutts sees about 800 commercial trucks a day, a relatively small number compared to entry points in B.C. and eastern Canada, he said the province will be impacted by delays and traffic reductions from those places, as well.

And carriers will become more selective in what loads they haul, causing consumer shortages for some goods more than others, he added.

“They won’t have the drivers so they’ll have to choose — it’s almost a pick-your-failure point,” he said.

“Whoever buys the most will get the most attention.”

Speaking from his Lethbridge-area office, Reese Evans insisted no workers, including commercial drivers, should lose the choice to be immunized or not.

And he’s counting on the federal government to relent on its incoming immunization regime, just as other governments have with its diminishing ranks of health-care workers.

“We need nurses and I’m hoping we see the same thing,” said Evans.

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Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

Public Health Agency of Canada involved in 'error' on trucker vaccine rules: CP sources .
Turmoil and confusion over whether truckers would remain exempt from the vaccine mandate last week stemmed from bureaucrats misinterpreting policy in more than one federal agency — including the one that co-ordinates Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The trucking industry was caught by surprise on Jan. 12 when the Canada Border Services Agency sent a statement to media saying that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated truck drivers crossing into Canada from the United States would remain exempt from the vaccine mandate which was expected to come into force last weekend.

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