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Vaccine mandate ‘silver lining’ could be better pay for drivers: Bison’s Fridfinnson

If there’s a silver lining to come from the current supply chain disruptions, exacerbated by new mandates requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated, it’s that drivers are likely to see their compensation increase significantly.

That’s according to Trevor Fridfinnson, chief operating officer of Bison Transport, who was representing the Toronto Transportation Club in a webinar put on by the recently formed North American Transportation Club Alliance (NATCA). The Alliance brings together five of the largest transportation clubs in North America and this was the first webinar put on by the group.

“If there’s a silver lining, it’s putting the right value on the men and women who do the job,” he said, noting Bison just gave its cross-border drivers the biggest pay increase in company history. “That’s well deserved and needed and if that can be the silver lining, that we can collectively realize the value that needs to be attributed to that role, then there’s some good that can come from this.”

(Photo: Bison Transport)

Fridfinnson said there are several factors contributing to the supply chain issues facing industry, including the flooding in B.C. that had a ripple effect on capacity throughout the network. Then, the vaccine mandates that took effect this month took about 10% of cross-border truckers off those routes.

“Our fleet, in preparation for this, months ago started really pushing the need and promotion of vaccines within our organization,” he said.

Even so, about 10% of its cross-border drivers refused the jab, which led to the pay increases – 15% for cross-border company drivers, and 7-8% for owner-operators.

“We did this proactively and it’s been a good strategy to this point, but we are still seeing tightness in our own network,” he said.

Bison is working with its customers to address the supply chain issues, with talks focusing on three key topics: how to optimize the network, scheduling and modal shifts where applicable; recognizing the effect inflation is having on trucking costs, including parts, equipment and labor; and recognizing the opportunists who are trying to take advantage of today’s tight capacity with no long-term viability once market conditions normalize.

Fridfinnson said everyone in the supply chain has a role in ensuring drivers’ time is not wasted, whether at the ports, loading docks or distribution centers.

“We are seeing dwell times going up, and that’s something that’s hurting the ability for us to get to the other side of this,” he said, blaming in part, absenteeism related to Covid-19.

The rail scene

Dan Bresolin, vice-president – intermodal at CN, represented the Montreal club on the webinar. He gave a view of challenges impacting the rail industry.

“There are two stories here. One is pre-washout, one is post-washout,” he said, referring to the B.C. floods. Prior to the floods, he said “We were clean at every port, dwell time was down to a very respectable level and we were serving quite well, every vessel able to get to berth with no lineups.”

Then the flooding interrupted CN’s operations from Nov. 13 to Dec. 4. Once operations resumed, there was a slow ramp-up for about a week.

“We need to inspect the rails as we pass over it to make sure repairs are strong and safe,” he explained. Things were getting back to normal around Dec. 11 – then on Dec. 17 snowstorms hit Vancouver. Then came the extreme cold weather on Dec. 23, placing the railway’s western network under Tier 2 restrictions.

“The cold really impacts the train’s ability to brake, to pass air from the front of the engine to the back of the train to have braking power,” Bresolin explained.

Despite all those challenges, Bresolin sees reason for hope the obstacles are behind.

“I think today we are hoping to have Tier 2 restrictions lifted,” he said. “We’ll start picking up velocity and getting to the places we need to get to. The Omicron virus is also having an impact on some of our staffing across the country. It’s been a really tough run here the last week. But we’re hoping we can get a nice run of warmer weather, and get the trains moving.”

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