SBA coronavirus assistance: For now, many owner-operators left blowing in the wind

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Updated Apr 21, 2020

Have you ever felt like the last passenger on a crashing plane with no more parachutes? I would venture a guess that many owner-operators today feel exactly like that. I admit that for the first time since the 1970s people actually understand the value of the trucker and just what they do for the nation. While most of us appreciate the thanks of a grateful nation, what the nation fails to understand is we are simply doing our jobs and providing for our families and only expect fair unbiased treatment, along with the opportunity to better the lives of those we love.

A pat on the back or an attaboy is nice, but neither will pay the bills.

Like everyone else, we have monthly household bills that need to be paid so our families can have the basic comforts of living. We have little ones at home, spouses, family pets. We have college tuitions, mortgages or rent, taxes, gas, insurance, and vehicle payments like everyone else. Our families consume the same exact thing everyone else does.

However, the owner-operator also has business expenses to maintain, and if that paycheck is to keep rolling in, they must be paid before any profit is passed on to the family. This in an industry where profit margins are based upon pennies not dollars.

Most of us who pay attention have heard the predictions — we knew we were coming to a cliff when it comes to freight volumes and rates. If we were smart and had enough time to react, we set aside an emergency fund to see us through. However, if some paid little attention, did not have the time to set up a contingency plan, or simply were barely hanging on, they are now looking at losing everything they were trying to build.

Is that the fault of the government or the big dog on the porch? No, of course not. Nor is it those entities’ responsibility to bail everybody out. And though it may be a hard pill to swallow, some may find themselves facing the decision to hang it up and go back to being a company driver. Lick those wounds, learn from mistakes made, and try again.

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Still, we are now facing something never seen before in the history of our country. The only thing keeping us from a complete economic collapse are those still working and keeping this country running, a substantial portion of which are owner-operators. Sure, the mega carriers are keeping their drivers running. For a short time, they can sustain the impact of freight and rates bottoming out. Still, they are vying for the same freight as the rest of us, adding to those very issues we now face.

Some owner-operators can afford to wait it out, if they so choose. Their equipment is paid in full and they have set themselves up to ride the wave.

While most of us have determined to ride out the roller coaster and see it through until the end, we have no illusions about how difficult it already is, generally speaking – and how difficult it personally may become. And while we did not ask for it, we thought we might see a small reprieve with the passing of the CARES Act and its Paycheck Protection Program. However, as to a typical feeding frenzy the bigger, faster dogs crowd their way to the food bowl and the little dogs get left out or behind, the SBA last week predictably announced the billions set aside for that program had gone dry.

Just under 1 in 10 owner-operator respondents to this question about the PPP, as well as other coronavirus relief options, reported having received money as of April 20.Just under 1 in 10 owner-operator respondents to this question about the PPP, as well as other coronavirus relief options, reported having received money as of April 20.

The cynic’s view? Yeah, that’d be that funding institutions processed the applications of their biggest customers (those from whom they stood to benefit most) first, and put the small guys on hold. That’s probably in fact true in some instances. Whatever the case, the money is gone for now and not everyone got what they needed. (Reports over the weekend suggested more money was on its way through Congressional appropriations, though, and business services firm ATBS Friday recommended any owner-operator pursuing Paycheck Protection Program funding to just continue work on their application with the expectation that it would remain an option; the firm is freely available to clients to assist in the application processes – also to nonclients, for a fee.)

President Trump called us heroes this past Thursday and thanked God for our contribution. Yet he also formed a committee to boost the recovery efforts and failed to include one of the largest segments of that recovery – owner-operators – as part of it.

He is right that we can and we will recover. As we’ve done before, most owner-operators will weather the storm and come out stronger in the end.

But falling off this freight cliff will be painful for all of us – and fatal for some businesses, given there just aren’t enough parachutes for everyone. Those who depend on owner-ops once again turned their backs and allowed the big dogs to eat their fill, leaving a large portion of us blowing in the wind.

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