Dealing with COVID-19 in the Office and in the Field

Crew members from Mead Tree and Turf Care, Inc., an accredited, 30-year TCIA member company based in Woodbine, Maryland, practice social distancing on the job in April. Photo courtesy of Mead Tree and Turf Care, Inc.

Tree care companies are facing numerous new challenges and obstacles in the workplace due to COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed in trying to halt its spread. In this article, we’ll share some of the concerns and experiences of company owners and staff around the country as well as the ideas and solutions some of them have come up with to address those concerns. We’ll also offer resources for answers to some of your questions.

Roundtable discussions

During late March and early April, TCIA staff hosted twice-weekly roundtable discussions online with members from across the country. Many of the concerns expressed and circumstances described were repeated by several participants. Feedback from those discussions forms the framework of this article. Other content came from emails and discussions with members or from TCIA staff. Since members were encouraged to speak freely during those discussions, we won’t use their names here.

What are members doing?

In the office

By mid-March, some companies had shut down completely. Others were finding ways to keep employees at least partially employed, i.e., one company had a few jobs for hazard-tree removals, but didn’t think that would last long. Other companies were continuing to work full time. A month later, not much had changed.

“Everyone who can work remotely has been ordered to stay out of the office,” emailed a manager with a member company in California. “Subsequently, we are down from eight employees in the office to two. Our estimators are practicing social distancing and wearing masks when our customers insist on a face-to-face meeting. Most of our communication at this point is done via phone or FaceTime. The crews are all wearing masks and have been told not to initiate any face-to-face interaction with customers.

“So far, we have managed to avoid any major hiccups to our operation, but the sales have dried up quite a bit and our backlog is shrinking. We’re still in OK shape for now.”

One member said his company has 10 crews but had laid off some staff when the county/state shut them down. They are continuing municipal work and have some local line-clearance work and are looking at ISNET for certification. One recommendation to them was that it might be a good time to pursue the TCIA Utility Contractor Accreditation credential so they could expand their line-clearance work in the future.

Another owner said his main priority right now is forecasting several different loss-of-revenue scenarios; this included a present-day scenario where employees may potentially be out of work for just two weeks, then adjusting revenue down again for what things might look like after being out of work for four weeks, eight weeks and potentially six months. The idea would be to have his benchmarks set for each scenario if tough decisions had to be made. Knowing these benchmarks and the action steps needed in advance would avoid him having to make decisions later in a reactive manner, with feelings involved.

He also was identifying countermeasures he could put in place if things really get tight and no revenue is coming in. He has a lot of equipment with trained, skilled operators for that equipment, and said he could potentially be a subcontractor for the local government and municipalities.

Josh King, a climber with Sussex Tree, Inc., of Bridgeville, Delaware, keeps his mouth and nose covered while on the job as a cautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Josh King.

One member advocated requesting lending institutions to convert the business’s outstanding notes to interest-only loans, basically extending the loan out to get through this pandemic.

Some other difficult decisions made by members included layoffs, pay cuts across the board and focusing on cutting discretionary spending in all ways possible.

Two companies adjusted hourly and salaried employees. One has three employees working four 10-hour days, and the owners are off the payroll. One employee works in the office, one in the shop and one outdoors so there is no contact with each other. The second company has hourly workers at 36 hours per week, four nine-hour days; salaried employees took a 10% cut and the owner took a 59% cut. The objective is to keep everyone on the team.

A California company had to furlough three staff; the company has a crew to handle hazard-tree removal, but a high-end tennis facility wanted their bushes trimmed so they look nice, and the company owner knows that’s not essential. He’s currently building a backlog of business so when this is over, he’s ready to go.

A Colorado company owner has self-certified as an essential business and has COVID-19 protocols in place, but hadn’t started work yet as spring is taking its sweet time getting to his mountainous area of the country.

Some Florida members said that, so far, they are not expecting significant hits to their revenue, as they soon will be getting into hurricane season with its storm work.

One member brought up the topic of educating customers and employees on what are considered essential services. Another asked what documentation companies or crews need to carry to continue running as essential businesses. A New York arborist doing Face-Time estimates said he carries the joint statement from TCIA/ISA explaining essential services. Another said the joint letter from TCIA/ISA was great and advised using that as “justification” to be working to quell potential critics.

It also was mentioned that a company should be able to show it has written protocols in place for social distancing, etc., that are being adhered to on the job site.

One member asked, if the company was already on the job site and they saw other things that needed to be done, is it OK to do them even if it’s not considered “essential”? The advice given was, yes, but document, document and document. The explanation was that it would result in a reduction in visits and that means less exposure – mitigating those risks. The same member also said the professional relationship with TCIA is setting his company apart from others.

One western U.S. owner is working from home. He had to lay off two crew members. He said 80% of his work is residential and he has had people canceling, with the reason given being the drop in the value of their stocks. He’s been in business a long time and has his set stable of clients, but wondered if he should branch out into another county. A fellow member suggested he take the time to reach out personally to all his clients and be a part of the community – offer to pick up groceries – and advised not to do any eblasts, adding that phone calls are the way to build rapport with clients so when this ends, they will be with you.

Another member said she handed a box of N95 masks to a local health-care facility, but that she feels badly because she kept three boxes, which her crews will need when fire season hits. She outlined what her county did in terms of shutting down early, etc. She says it’s full-time work just trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.

A member shared with other members an email communication he sent out to all his clients. The other members were pleased with his willingness to share that with them.

One asked if other companies experienced unacceptable behavior by staff, for example, claiming to be infected to avoid work.

In regard to improving employee morale, one member said it has always been their basic philosophy that employees want to feel safe and secure in their choice of employment so they don’t take worries home with them and can bring 100% to the job every day. The company offers 100% insurance coverage to its employees, which helps with employee retention. They also offered to furlough employees who had concerns about being at work during the pandemic, and they provide hazard pay to those who still have to go into the office.

Crew members from Mead Tree and Turf Care, Inc., wearing protective masks while working in the field. Photo courtesy of Mead Tree and Turf Care.

One company cut back 100% on marketing so they would not seem obtuse or uncaring to their communities. Instead, they were making considerable donations to charitable funds for COVID-19-related issues in the community. They said donating to their community the money they would have spent on marketing will work more in their favor in the long run. They also asked their employees if they would be willing to participate in a pay cut to ensure the company will get through this, but only after the owner took a 50% pay cut first.

Training and safety

Some members were concerned that not all the messages regarding COVID-19 were getting across to Spanish-speaking staff.

Some were looking to add best practices related to COVID-19 to tailgate safety training, i.e., healthy distancing, wearing face masks, one person being responsible for the rig and all others getting to the job site with their own vehicle, etc.

One member pointed out the concern that if tree companies do work and a tree worker is injured, there might not be any hospital beds available.

Many have stopped doing regular safety meetings, citing the concern that they cannot have crews in groups. One member suggested using Tree Care Academy (TCA) training programs. There are 14 different TCA titles, and employees can do these individually and still meet safety-training guidelines. One member also said crews can review the Tailgate Safety summary lessons and take the quizzes at home.

In the field

One question that continues to be on many members’ minds is, as an industry, what is the socially acceptable thing to do? If people see tree care companies working, they may think it’s “business as usual.” They also may be offended that tree companies are not doing their part in not working. Will it create a poor image? How should they navigate the public’s perception when it comes to being out working during this pandemic while stay-at-home orders are in place. How do we remain socially responsible while maintaining responsibility for the company, its employees and their families and livelihood?

Many owners said they want to have their teams go out and meet the needs of the clients but are also morally concerned about the health of their crews and families – a very delicate line to walk as each day changes.

Most are still attempting some work, with modified operations, and most members are aware of their state guidelines and have been monitoring the COVID-19 page on tcia.org for updates.

A member from Vermont mentioned that her state was much more conservative in what they deemed essential services and what work they could potentially perform compared to other New England States. She was considering shutting down operations for two weeks because she thought the public’s perception was too overwhelmingly negative and it could hurt them in the long run. One company did get an exemption from the state of Vermont but had to submit paperwork to state authorities to get it.

A Connecticut member said he would not let social pressures dictate whether he continues operations. He took the time to communicate to his clients the steps he would take to ensure everyone’s safety and says he would continue until he is told he no longer can do so.

Another member decided to halt all operations due to concerns regarding an overall balance between safety and workload. Still others were working but navigating safety with workload and were seeing a limited financial impact so far.

A North Carolina member said the state declared a shelter-in-place order, but tree care was cited as essential, so they remained unaffected and still had typical call volume for estimates.

A California member was running two out of five crews, but said all crew members want to work and need the money, so the company was rotating jobs so everyone gets to work and earn some money. But if anyone is sick and they are out, they will get their two weeks/80 hours of pay as sick pay, per the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). They trust their crews to only be out if they, or a family member, are ill.

A company in Massachusetts transitioned some crews to line-clearance work, as they serve a utility. They did lay off some crew members for lack of work. They also were keeping some crew members for possible storm cleanup. Massachusetts’ governor has allowed landscapers to be part of essential services.

Most said the phones are dead, but customers are home and still want work done. A Maryland member stated his clients are older and have no monetary issues and want him to come to their properties. One member was getting into PHC for fertilizations, and it works because only one worker is necessary at each job site.

Two companies in Colorado were still working, albeit on a lighter schedule than previously. One was sending out two crew members to a truck, wearing masks and practicing social distancing while trying to work as much as possible.

One member is checking everyone’s wellness first thing each morning to ensure each field worker is not potentially putting anyone else at risk. Another is staggering hours for crews to come in to reduce exposure to one another.

One member said he is reworking policies and procedures to reflect the new normal – one employee per truck, sanitize it twice a day, wear gloves and swab down equipment every time someone touches/uses it.

Many asked about what products to use to sanitize trucks and tools and where to find them, as needed cleaning supplies were nowhere to be found. One said they even tried Amazon and found nothing.

SavATree crew members, from left, Chepe Benavides, Jose Mejia and Alejandro Martinez are masked and practicing social distancing on the job in April in Norcross, Georgia. Photo by David Cheek, CTSP, operations manager with SavATree.

The EPA website lists hydrogen peroxide for a disinfectant: https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2. One tip for sanitizing tools included Star San, available on Amazon and elsewhere. Use 1 tablespoon for a gallon spray jug (they spray their vehicles down) instead of using Clorox wipes. This is used regularly in the food industry and breweries, and it is reasonably priced. “We will spray things like our chain saws, hand tools, grips on trailer ramps, controls on bucket trucks and our crane-truck controls,” a member said.

Most companies are providing the means for employees to keep hands and workspaces clean. But one member questioned how to manage employee behavior after work, i.e., keeping a healthy distance at all times and practicing hand washing. Advice offered was that, like any safety practices, good habits learned and enforced on the job would carry over at home.

Another observation offered was that each leader, whether an owner or a supervisor, sets the tone in the workplace and, in many cases, employees then carry that same tone home with them. Employers and supervisors should continue to use positive tones and policies to get them through this difficult time.

One suggestion made was to do extra maintenance on equipment to make sure everything is in top running condition so when this virus ends, the company is ready to hit the road running and meet clients’ needs.

Resources

Many members had questions about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which went into effect March 27, and its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provisions. They also had questions about the other various bills being approved by Congress and what provisions they provide their workers and their small businesses. These questions were too numerous to list here, along with their related anecdotes, but here is a sampling:

• Do employees have to exhaust their vacation and sick time before getting unemployment or Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits? (No)

• If one of their employees tests positive for COVID-19, is that a qualifying OSHA event that needs to be reported? (Not at this time, but keep internal records)

• If they get a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and by chance their company’s revenue goes up in the months to come and they don’t show a loss, would the loan still be forgiven? (Loans are forgiven if they are used on payroll costs)

Some of these questions are addressed in the Washington column, “Federal Response to COVID-19,” in this issue of TCI, on page 20.

However, for what is likely the most comprehensive resource for our industry, visit TCIA’s COVID-19 webpage on tcia. org. The page has updates explaining details of the provisions in the various bills, Q&As, business tools, offers of help from TCIA corporate members, updates on individual state actions and more. It is continually updated, and many members said they have found the TCIA website’s COVID-19 page to be very helpful.

One member also expressed appreciation for the Women in Tree Care Facebook Group, saying it has been very helpful, that it was a place to go as a woman owner to get some ideas from other women in the industry.

More than one member mentioned how the financial stimulus along with state unemployment compensation is almost a disincentive for workers who do not want to work (right now due to COVID-19). The CARES Act provides $600 a week in addition to state unemployment that could be, in some cases, up to an additional $1,000 or more a week. “We’ve been seeing a lot of pushback from our employees who are making more money on unemployment than by coming back to work,” said one Midwest member in an email.

One member had a question about paying for health insurance for their employee who opted to be laid off and collect unemployment insurance (UI). If the individual chooses to ride the UI out the full term, until July 30 (which is how long the government is guaranteeing this additional income), does the employer have to pay for their health insurance the whole time? Also, does the company have to have their job waiting for them when they decide to come back?

A member from Idaho was forced to shut down for two weeks. They were giving their full-time and two part-time employees the 80 hours of sick-time pay if needed, per the CARES Act, and are hoping to get it back in tax credits. These workers also were applying for unemployment, and the member was not sure how that might affect eligibility for the tax credits. They are keeping a file on all these actions.

One member was proactive and called his banks where he has loans in place from equipment purchases. The banks are working with him; one offered a 90-day and another a 6-month loan deferment. He advised others not to wait, to call now and work with their banks. He said it is well worth it.

A Colorado owner is working with his banker to borrow against his assets if needed. He’s all set for now, but wants a plan in place if he needs to use it.

Visit TCIA’s COVID-19 webpage on tcia.org. The page has updates explaining details of the provisions in the various bills, Q&As, business tools, offers of help from TCIA corporate members, updates on individual state actions and more.

Conclusion

Some companies shared that they are not as negatively impacted as they had anticipated they might be. However, the concern was expressed that the reduction of disposable income will affect the industry and, at least in the short term, that the longer their customers are not working, the more it will negatively affect their call volume.

Several members discussed what, if anything, they would do differently to protect themselves from risks going forward, knowing now the potential for pandemics, natural-disaster preparedness and the like. Many said they will be revisiting their insurance policies to add provisions for loss of business due to pandemics and other possible interruptions.

Not many companies had crisis-management plans in place. One business in California was working on a plan due to the threat of fires.

A member suggested that owners and managers start thinking about their marketing strategies for when we come out of this – to position their company as crucial and essential.

TCIA is encouraging members to take an active role in advocating for themselves and the industry at their state and local levels. Members also need to be communicating personally with insurance carriers.

A big takeaway from the roundtable discussions was summed up well by one participant: “Hearing from others and what they are going through – we are not alone, and we are not crazy. It helps.” He said the roundtables should continue and that nationwide peer-to-peer discussions would be valuable, adding that if you cross-pollinate regionally, more people would be willing to share.

Charlie Tentas, TCIA’s director of member engagement, and the rest of the TCIA staff involved with the member roundtables contributed to this article.

Related articles

tree care worker spraying plants

Plant Health Care – Setting Yourself Apart

As the winter months pull away and we start to see plant health care (PHC) back on the horizon, I want to talk a little about the basics of PHC from a client perspective and some simple ways to set yourself apart from others in the industry. In the Greater Boston area, we are fortunate […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to listen highlighted text!