Covid crisis makes waste collector stronger

TORONTO – For refuse collector Waste Connections, business may never return to how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic. Not because the company has been devastated by the economic pressures facing freight haulers, but rather because it has found better ways of doing things during the crisis.
The company, which operates just over 1,400 trucks in Canada, including in the Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Vancouver Island markets, has seen an increase in residential trash volumes while commercial volumes have declined.

But while demand for its services remain high, it has also had to adapt to a quickly changing world to protect its employees from contracting the deadly virus. Some of those changes have been improvements that will be carried on after the economy is re-opened, according to Darrell Chambliss, the company’s chief operating officer, who spoke to Today’s Trucking from his Houston, Texas home office. As an example, the company is now using an app so that employees can punch in using their smartphones rather than a common punch clock.

“We already had the technology with the payroll software we use,” Chambliss said. “We just had not used the punch-in/punch-out feature because we were a little bit hesitant in how do we control it, so guys don’t punch in when they’re leaving their driveway and driving half an hour to work? We were able to get past that and have it so that the system knows whether or not they’re at the facility when they punch in. That’s going to be a permanent change going forward. I don’t envision us turning that off once we get past this, because it’s just another step in utilizing technology.”

Another possible permanent outcome is reducing travel.

“While things like Skype and WebEx have been around for a long time, I don’t think they’ve been widely adopted in our industry,” Chambliss said, adding traditionally employees would spend three days out of office to fly to another site for a meeting. He sees that changing permanently, as employees working from home have proven productive using video conferencing.

“You can accomplish the same things via video as you can spending three days out of the office for that one-day meeting,” he said, adding travel won’t disappear entirely, as it will still be important to nurture customer relationships.

Anything but business as usual

For front-line workers, including drivers and collection personnel, Waste Connections has implemented a long list of protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“We have implemented social distancing protocol, provided employees with hand sanitizer. Additionally, we have altered starting times so that the employees are not coming in at the same time,” he said of those who must still physically report to work, such as drivers and mechanics.

Shops have gone paperless, and shared kiosks are cleaned before and after every use.

“The drivers sanitize their trucks,” Chambliss added. “Typically, the same driver is assigned to the same truck each day.”

Despite the precautions, there have been several cases of Covid-19 within Waste Connection’s large workforce.

“When this has occurred, the area, truck and equipment the employee has used is sanitized,” Chambliss noted. “We have utilized third-party companies to provide this service, but we have also done the sanitizing ourselves. Anyone who is known to have recently come into contact with the employee that is positive is notified and asked to quarantine for 14 days.”

Interestingly, attendance at the company has actually improved during the pandemic. Chambliss attributes this in part to canceled vacations that were kyboshed by the pandemic, but also the fact employees have embraced their role in providing an important frontline service and are also grateful to remain employed, with U.S. first-time jobless claims surging by more than 22 million in less than a month.

“It’s a combination of things. People feel secure that steps are being taken to provide them protections, and guidelines are being followed so they can feel confident in what we’re doing,” he explained.

Equally important to keeping the business running is the dependability of vendors and service providers.

“I’d be remiss not to mention the importance of our vendors, our parts suppliers, our service centers, our chassis manufacturers. Our fleet technicians are very competent, but if we don’t have the parts for them to be able to repair the trucks on a nightly basis, then we can’t run and have a reliable fleet,” Chambliss acknowledged. “Having those dealerships open and the parts manufacturers available to supply us is critical.”

Return to normal?

As the talk shifts from shutting down the economy, to reopening it, Waste Connections is also developing a plan to return to its traditional way of doing business, notwithstanding the permanent changes that have been implemented.

“We are starting to talk about how we reopen our offices. We are starting to talk about the what-ifs, how do we manage through that restart, bringing people back in,” said Chambliss, adding the company is considering everything from rotational staffing (with some staff continuing to work from home while others report to the office) to better spacing out cubicles. “We haven’t come up with that plan yet.”


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