As much of America has settled into a social distancing routine by staying home and making the occasional trip to the grocery store or pharmacy, warehousing and logistics professionals are watching it play out in real time, all day long. Distribution center employees, truck drivers, delivery personnel, and essential retail workers are among those most affected by social distancing and safety protocols aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus that has gripped the country since mid-March. In this new environment, logistics workers have seen their workplaces re-tooled, processes redesigned, and interactions with supply chain partners upended as companies seek to create a delicate balancing act between keeping people safe and keeping on with business.
"We have customers that rely on us, even more now, to move their goods around," explains Maryclaire Hammond, senior vice president of human resources for transportation and logistics provider XPO Logistics, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a productive supply chain workforce amid shutdowns and quarantines. "We are spending 16 hours a day working on this and doing everything we can to keep our employees safe. We have to focus on safety, business continuity, and also keeping our business solvent for the future ... We've got to keep the world moving."
That means creating workplace guidelines for social distancing and deep cleaning as well as enhancing sick leave policies and other benefits. The changes affect everyone across the organization and are vital to keeping the business open as demand from particular segments of XPO's customer base grows, Hammond explains. Food and beverage customers are among those seeing the greatest need; one of XPO's large wholesale grocery customers has predicted it will need 50% more capacity over the next few months, for instance, and has turned to XPO to fill that transportation void, according to the company. XPO says it is also handling 40% more shipments from its facilities to the hospital community right now.
As a result, Hammond says the company is on a communications campaign to educate employees about the steps they need to take to stay safe while reminding them of the vital service they are performing during the pandemic.
"We have to communicate, communicate, communicate—we can never communicate enough. Especially at times like this," Hammond says. "Our drivers, our warehouse people, fork truck operators, customer service [personnel]—they are all on the front lines and we are reminding them of all the good they are doing."
New safety precautions
Like other essential workplaces, XPO has taken steps to enforce social distancing in its facilities, including marking floors to indicate six-foot distances in work areas and at building entrances, creating barriers where necessary to keep people apart, staggering break times, and removing chairs from break rooms to keep gatherings to recommended minimums. Early on, XPO removed all biometric login devices from its facilities and implemented extra cleanings at the beginning and end of each shift, Hammond says. In addition, every shift starts with a meeting reminding employees of the government-recommended safety measures and other precautions the company has put in place. Employees are asked to take their temperature before reporting to work each day and stay home if they are sick; they must also confirm that they have not tested positive for Covid-19, are not experiencing any symptoms, and have not been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for the virus.
Employee reaction has been reassuring, Hammond says.
"People are, overall, reacting very, very well and we need to keep repeating, repeating, repeating," these messages, Hammond adds. "But people are scared. So we have to keep reminding them why we are considered essential; we have to keep reminding them what we do here [every day]."
Material handling systems integrator Vargo Solutions is fielding requests from customers about how to implement similar social distancing protocols, according to Art Eldred, the company's client executive for system sales. He says Vargo's customers, which include firms that operate warehouses and distribution centers in a range of industries, are figuring out how to retool their layouts to add space between workstations while also accommodating the need for more frequent equipment cleaning. He says the biggest challenge for some is making employees feel comfortable enough to come to work.
"[With the] Covid crisis, right now [some] people aren't showing up to work," he says, adding that companies are responding with incentives such as hourly bonuses and paid time off. "Everyone is getting creative to get people to come into work."
XPO has added pandemic paid sick leave to its U.S. and Canadian benefits packages, giving affected full-time employees up to 80 hours of additional sick leave on top of standard annual paid time off, Hammond says. The company is also giving up to three days of 100% pay continuation if a facility is closed temporarily for deep cleaning or sanitation, and is offering free counseling sessions for all U.S. employees and their dependents via its Employee Assistance Program.
E-commerce backlogs, rising delivery demands
As more people stay home, online ordering and demand for home delivery are increasing, creating order backlogs and putting pressure on delivery methods—in many cases among companies that were just beginning to get a handle on their e-commerce and omnichannel business strategies over the last couple of years. Eldred says many e-commerce customers are experiencing order backlogs, some significantly. That lines up with recent reports of delays at large online retailers such as Amazon.com and delivery services such as Peapod.
As a result, businesses are scrambling to accommodate an increased need for last-mile delivery—especially small businesses, according to George Schegolev, vice president of operations for Route4Me, a New Jersey-based route optimization software provider. Schegolev says the company has seen increased interest in its product—which helps firms plan last-mile delivery routes—from small, independent grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants who want to stay up and running and keep people employed during the pandemic. Schegolev adds that the global pandemic is creating behavior changes that will only accelerate demand for last-mile delivery, and notes that Route4Me is offering tutorials via video conferencing service Zoom to help get companies up to speed.
"Businesses need to adapt to more deliveries because behaviors are changing," Schegolev says. "And many are saying they don't know how to do it. Our tool is just one small piece of the puzzle ... it's a complicated journey and we just want to support communities and people throughout these difficult times."
The extra tutorials are a cost for Route4Me, but Schegolev says it's a way for the firm to help address a need during the pandemic. Route4Me has also made its service available at no cost to federal, state, and local government agencies as well as food banks.
Despite the difficulties, the logistics sector remains one of the healthier segments of the economy. Business activity increased in March as demand for warehousing and transportation surged, according to the most recent Logistics Manger's Index report, released April 3. And businesses are hiring. U.S. drugstore chain Rite Aid said this week it will hire 5,000 full- and part-time employees nationwide for both store and distribution center positions to meet coronavirus pandemic demand. In March, Amazon said it would hire 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers to accommodate a surge in online orders. And the National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that although many retailers have had to make cuts to their workforce, others are hiring thousands of workers during the current conditions. The association is listing more than 900,000 job opportunities for workers displaced by the Covid-19 pandemic via a dedicated page on its website.
XPO's Hammond underscores the growing need for supply chain workers by pointing to a new motto the transportation and logistics provider is using throughout the organization: "Together we can."
"From the bottom of my heart, I cannot thank [these workers] enough. In XPO we're calling them our everyday heroes," she said, adding that XPO's sentiments apply across the board, no matter your industry or your location. "We are all in this together, and together we can. We will get through it."