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Stranded in December: A Truck Driver Story

Modern American supply chains are, in a way, a kind of Christmas miracle. In October and November, the gigantic gears of American commerce start turning. Manufacturers begin staging their finished inventory closer to consumers. This pre-positioning requires thousands upon thousands of trucks and truck drivers to zip across the country day and night to carry the loads. And in the same vein as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, seemingly against all odds, those drivers come through and deliver the goods.

But an even more heartwarming Christmas miracle is one that actually happened. It’s the subject of this admiring blog post.

In the Western world, many of us are accustomed to thinking that at the end of the calendar year, people’s compassion and regard for one another somehow swells to joyous and extraordinary new heights. But I don’t think that many of us actually see that very often. But sometimes, we’re proven wrong, and this story is one that no one outside of trucking is seeing: This December, hundreds of truck drivers were in danger of being stranded on the side of the road, and other truck drivers came to pick them up and bring them home.

Celadon suddenly goes bankrupt

On December 7, a Saturday, Freightwaves broke the story that one of America’s largest and most well-known trucking companies, Indianapolis-based Celadon, would declare bankruptcy the following Monday. Their reporting was prescient; the company officially folded just two days later.

A sudden trucking company bankruptcy is especially problematic for two reasons. First, truck drivers carry a lot of personal belongings with them on the road. At a company like Celadon, drivers typically live part-time in the trucks that they operate. They’ll work and sleep in their trucks anywhere from three to five days a week in their sleeper cabs: tiny personal quarters behind the driver’s seat equipped with a bed and, often, personalized with household appliances, electronics, and comforts of home. This way, they can relax and recharge during days-long stretches on the road. Many drivers also have a truck dog as a companion. So when the vehicle is stranded, then so too is the driver’s rolling homestead and all their belongings.

The second thing that makes a bankruptcy complicated is fuel. The average Class 8 big rig truck gets only five to six miles per gallon of diesel, which company management typically pays for by giving every driver a company fuel card. One of these trucks might carry 100 to 200 gallons of fuel in the tank, so if the company suddenly goes under — and the fuel card gets shut off — many will be caught short on fuel, or cash on hand, to get themselves and their personal effects home.

So you can imagine the drivers’ despair when the rumors suddenly started swirling that Celadon’s end was imminent, that driver fuel cards were shut off, and that paychecks would no longer be coming in. See below:

Driver and press reaction from Facebook and Twitter to the Celadon bankruptcy

Stranded

The aftermath was messy. Exactly what happened to each driver is still unclear. A frantic game of telephone played out on social media and over in-truck communication systems (like CB radios and Qualcomms). How will the drivers get home?

Even less clear was what they were supposed to do with their company-owned trucks. If they were to abandon their trucks, what would happen to all their property inside? Would they be sued for abandoning company vehicles? What about their ride-along pets? Initial reports indicated that the company might reimburse drivers for bus fare home. But drivers rightly pointed out, “How will I get my TV, my dog, and my mini-fridge on a bus?”

How will the drivers get home?

I’ll leave it to other commentators, and in all likelihood, the court, to judge Celadon’s handling of its bankruptcy. But, to put it briefly, this was a major company already in serious trouble; just a few days earlier, two former senior leaders were charged with accounting fraud. In addition to the drivers stranded when the company closed, office staff in Indianapolis were locked out of their offices that Monday. They almost certainly could have helped coordinate with drivers had they not also been blindsided by the closure. Reports suggest that they too were left suddenly without a paycheck or health insurance.

But despite Celadon’s dire straits, it still strikes me that management’s response to its bankruptcy was, at best, insufficient considering the livelihoods it jeopardized.

Roughly 3,000 drivers, short of information, fuel, and hope were stranded thousands of miles away from their homes — just days before Christmas.

There is an essential moment in every feel-good story, where even if you’re sure a happier ending is coming, your heart fears that it may not happen, that the masters of fate or the sadistic author may have taken you down the serpentine path of their story for naught. This is that moment.

Long-haul truck drivers — and their families — make unique sacrifices when they spend weeks away from home delivering our goods. Drivers’ physical health, mental health, and family relationships are all known to suffer. (1, 2) Whenever I’m lucky enough to engage with working drivers, one or two among them almost always suggests — sweetly, but very incorrectly — that I must think they are simple or unaware people. In my experience, drivers do not believe that the rest of the world thinks very highly of them. I wish that they didn’t think this way, but I understand why some of them do. And I’d be remiss to leave out that this mentally and physically taxing work, which comes with little social esteem or prestige, typically earns drivers about $40,000 per year.

A new hope and a Christmas miracle

There are drivers I follow on social media: personalities who share their stories and experiences publicly, which helps me to understand the real lives and the context behind the faceless data that I analyze. In the face of the Celadon bankruptcy crisis, these drivers delivered, for me, an important Christmas message. See some sample posts below:

A few of hundreds of such posts. A new hope.

In the end, hundreds of drivers posted on the social media channels I follow offering help. These were collected in Facebook groups for stranded drivers to find help. And at the time of writing this post, one such group has over 1,700 members.

Logo for the 1,700-member Facebook community dedicated to helping stranded drivers.

Several competing companies also went above and beyond, breaking with tradition and allowing their drivers to assist their stranded colleagues. Summit Trucking allowed company drivers to offer rides. Swift Transportation set up a dedicated help line to find resources for stranded drivers. Freightwaves, the organization that broke the story, dedicated a part of its website to helping former Celadon staff find new jobs. For transportation professionals, Christmas 2019 was already very busy with the whirring gears of commerce — but for a few days in December, it was also busy with compassion.

Any holiday season is only special when we see something that makes it different from the rest of the year. And as I said before, we may think that the season magically instills compassion and selflessness in us, but we rarely see it. Fewer still live it. And so, without evidence of such kindness, it can be hard to believe in any of that Christmas miracle stuff. What I like about this story is that in 2019 truck drivers delivered the proof — along with everybody else’s presents too.

So, to the drivers, I say thank you and Happy Holidays from the MIT FreightLab and the Truck Driver Initiative.

Dr. David Correll is co-director of MIT’s Freightlab and leads the Driver Initiative, a data-driven research project that seeks to understand the work experience and utilization of the American driver. You can reach him at dcorrell@mit.edu and on Twitter at @davidhccorrell.

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