Roadblock: COVID hits Port Kembla transport operators

On the road: Interstate allocator at Ross Transport Josh Jewitt with some of the vehicles that are sitting idle as drivers and mechanics isolate. Picture: Sylvia Liber.
On the road: Interstate allocator at Ross Transport Josh Jewitt with some of the vehicles that are sitting idle as drivers and mechanics isolate. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

Trucks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are sitting idle in one NSW port as transport businesses grapple with a shortage of drivers and mechanics.

With estimates of between 10 to 50 per cent of transport operators' workforces having to stay home and isolate, the Omicron variant is once again testing the capacity of our supply chains.

Illawarra transport business owner Alan Ross has been moving goods around Australia for nearly 50 years. Today, the business transports nearly everything, specialising in building products including steel, bricks and plasterboard.

Ross Transport has a 70-strong fleet of trucks but is now short 20 drivers, with eight per cent of drivers absent due to isolation requirements at any one time.

While this gives Mr Ross the chance to catch up on maintenance, as each of the trucks are worth from $300,000 to $800,000, any time not spent on the road means the business is losing money.

"Most of them haven't got it, they are just in isolation. And once again, they cannot come back to work because we can't test them because of the short supply of RATs," said Mr Ross.

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Throughout the COVID pandemic, truck drivers and other transport workers have been on the front line of the pandemic.

During earlier waves of COVID-19, transport staff who travelled interstate were subject to strict testing requirements and operators adapted to these requirements. The situation today is dramatically different, said Paul Zalai, director of industry group Freight and Trade Alliance.

"A lot of businesses are struggling to get sufficient access to the rapid antigen tents, and that will also come at a price," said Mr Zalai.

"We were told all along that we had to learn how to live with a virus, but we were never told how we're actually going to work with the virus. And I think that became very evident over the festive period. The PCR testing process just could not cope with the demand.

"Then all of a sudden, the rapid antigen tests, which were deemed as being inadequate in 2021, have now become the standard in 2022."

The lean supply chain

Feeling the pressure of testing and isolation requirements in late 2021 and early 2022, unions highlighted the irony facing many transport workers.

"Drivers are delivering rapid tests to be sold on the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies - but they, like most Australians, can't access them themselves," said Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine on January 5.

"We need to prioritise critical industries like transport."

In NSW, Victoria and Queensland health authorities relaxed testing requirements for transport workers on January 9, allowing workers who are close contacts of a COVID-19 case to attend work if they have no symptoms, as long as they wear a mask and undergo daily rapid antigen tests.

While this has enabled transportation to operate, Mr Zalai said that Omicron has highlighted how lean the supply chains are.

"A lot of the pressure points that we were seeing before have just been magnified now by the current pandemic."

What this means for consumers is that besides stock shortages, prices will rise and that while shortages of chicken or toilet paper may be the most visible, the impact is being felt on almost all products, with major stevedores reporting that up to 10 per cent of their workforce are isolating or at home sick.

As the Omicron wave stabilises and cases start to drop, fewer critical workers will need to isolate, but Mr Ross said that staff shortages in the transport sector were around well before COVID, and will continue to be around well after.

"I enjoy employing people but in the last 10 years it is getting harder and harder."

Mr Ross cites the impact of compliance, long hours, and an aging workforce as forcing drivers out of the workforce and limiting the career's attractiveness to newcomers.

Mr Ross hopes more women will join the workforce and his daughter and manager at the business, True Ross, is a board member at Transport Women Australia, pushing for greater involvement of women in the traditionally male-dominated industry. But in the meantime, every Ross Transport truck has a sign on its rear:

"Looking for employment?"

This story Why trucks are parked up when we need them most first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.