With truck drivers playing a vital role in bringing needed supplies to Nebraskans as the coronavirus continues to quarantine more people each day, the Nebraska Trucking Association and Bosselman Enterprises thanked truckers for their service with a free lunch Thursday.

NTA is partnering with Bosselman and other member companies to offer free $5 lunch vouchers at various Nebraska truck stop locations. The first event took place Thursday at the Bosselman Travel Center, 3335 W. Wood River Road, in Grand Island.

“When we approached some of our members, who would normally sponsor other events, and asked them if they would instead sponsor this effort, they leapt at the chance,” NTA President Kent Grisham said.

Grisham said the best hope we have to get and keep our economy moving in this pandemic “rides on 18 wheels.”

“Store shelves don’t fill back up without our drivers working overtime to deliver the freight,” he said. “This is a way of thanking them because without those trucks rolling down the highway, our country would be in such a worse position than it is right now with this pandemic outbreak.”

With store shelves emptying quickly as people are preparing for a long period of isolation, Grisham said, “Whatever it is, it got there by truck.”

Charlie Bosselman, president of Bosselman Enterprises, said that when association officials asked whether his company would like to do the thank-you to truck drivers, “it was a natural deal for us to say ‘Yes,’ as we definitely like to say thank-you to all of these guys and gals. They are dealing with just as much stuff as we are having to deal with right now. We thought it would be awesome to reward them.”

Bosselman said the truck stop is an essential business that has to stay open during this crisis.

“It is one of those deals, for our staff, it is tough as they can’t work from home,” he said. “They have to stay here. Not only do we have to keep our doors open through all of this, but our people have to keep coming to work. We had to work through all of this, but, in the same breath, our truckers are having to work 24 hours per day. They are having to deal with all this stuff.”

One of the drivers who received a lunch voucher Thursday at the Bosselman Travel Center Thursday was Nathan. He said receiving the lunch voucher was “great.”

A longtime trucker who stops frequently at Bosselman when he is on the road, he said trucking is a great industry to work in.

“You provide great service to people,” he said. “Our nation and the whole world moves by truck. If we can provide a service that makes life more comfortable for everybody, that is reward enough.”

The industry is vital to the economy of Nebraska. Nebraska trucking companies employ 1 out of every 12 workers in the state, providing 62,970 jobs, with total trucking industry wages in Nebraska exceeding $2.7 billion.

According to NTA, which is a statewide trade association for commercial and private truck operators and affiliated businesses, trucks transport 76% of total manufactured tonnage in Nebraska. More than 48% of Nebraska communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods.

And the role of the trucking becomes even more prominent during the current pandemic, as NTA said that without trucks:

— Gas stations would run out of fuel in a few hours.

— Manufacturers would experience component shortages and manufacturing delays in as little as three hours.

— Hospitals and assisted care facilities would run out of medical supplies such as syringes within 24 hours.

— Grocery stores would experience shortages within 24 to 48 hours.

— In just a few days, residents would be surrounded by uncollected garbage and medical waste.

Grisham said truckers are busier now than ever because of the role the industry plays.

“Freight volumes are up quite a bit in the last number of weeks,” he said. “Some of our members are reporting that their volumes are actually higher than they are in a typical peak holiday season. When you think of all of the consumption and buying that takes place during the holiday season, we are actually higher now for a number of our members.”

Panic-buying occurred when people were first being asked to stay home and not congregate in groups of more than 10 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. That put a strain on everybody in the supply chain to keep the shelves stocked, especially truckers. The panic-buying caused stores to limit their hours of operation and the amount of items shoppers could buy to discourage unnecessary hoarding.

“They emptied out a lot of stores and warehouses,” Grisham said. “The warehousing has stepped up and, as a consequence, the trucking industry has stepped up to make sure all that gets distributed.”

The strain on the supply chain put the trucking industry into catch-up mode. To keep the trucks on the road, many of the regulations that govern the industry were temporarily suspended. The trucking industry, prior to the pandemic, was also having trouble finding drivers. That has compounded the situation even more, calling on truckers to spend more hours behind the wheel.

“We still have a shortage of truck drivers, and we are welcoming new truck drivers all the time,” Grisham said. “We are a little on the handicap side right now as so many of the testing and training locations have been closed during the pandemic, but we expect that to be corrected very soon and we will be able to get a lot more drivers out on the road.”

He said truck drivers, like the rest of society, are taking precautions about the coronavirus, such as social distancing and hand-washing.

“When you think about it, in a way, they are already isolated because almost all of their time they are in a truck. But, at the same time, they still need to have access to restaurants and truck stops and rest areas,” Grisham said.

He gives a lot of credit to the drivers who are keeping America’s communities supplied with essential goods and products.

“There would be a real frightening result for any reason if we had to park the trucks,” Grisham said.

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