The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Gladys Gillis’s backyard before it emerged in other regions.
Gillis, CEO of Seattle-based Starline Luxury Coaches, was among the first operators to experience the devastating economic impact when the country’s first novel coronavirus cases were confirmed in Washington in late January, followed one month later by the first U.S. death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Her curve of canceled jobs and lost business has been roughly three weeks ahead of most UMA operators. During those early days, her team struggled to grasp the magnitude of the financial crisis before them.
“We no sooner had created worst-case scenario plans than we had to do them again because we didn’t know how grave the situation was,” Gillis said.
But that experience has given Gillis insight. During a March 26, 2020, UMA Town Hall session, she shared her four-part strategy for dealing with the unprecedented crisis: communications management, employee support, money issues and what she calls “imagineering the future.”
One of her first steps was to control communications, understanding that during this time she couldn’t afford to lose a single piece of business. She quickly made sure that all emails and phone calls were routed to a single email address or phone line that could be easily managed. From there, each correspondence is forwarded to one of four folders: sales, operations and safety, accounting and shop.
“So, anyone who is still working for us has the ability to check those four folders to see if there was anything critical coming in on any given day,” explained Gillis.
She is using the help desk software Zendesk to respond to the emails and track response time, interaction and resolution of issues.
“It lets us see turn time, and that turn time is critical because, if it starts getting longer, I’ll have to bring back more people off of furlough in order to help support these customer concerns that are coming in through this email,” she said. “The Zendesk email account is inexpensive and easy to set up.”
Gillis furloughed most of the company’s workforce to drastically cut payroll and now operates the business, spread across seven locations, with a skeletal staff. Working out of the Seattle base, they monitor phones and other communications.
The company remains in contact with furloughed employees, who were able to take advantage of unemployment benefits that are being extended under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion stimulus package intended to support the U.S. economy during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the drivers are being called back to handle some work that remains with the company. They then report those hours and the pay is deducted from their unemployment benefits.
The initial furlough period was for four weeks but is being extended into April in compliance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.
Gillis says she was looking at whether to extend the medical benefits of the workforce, and whether that would include continuing to pick up the employees’ share of the costs.
“If we make that decision, it would be something that would be supported by any relief package,” she said.
In March, the company emailed every vendor and asked for relief from payment obligations for the next 90 days because of the pandemic, which has brought business nearly to a halt.
“We’ve called all our recurring expenses and asked to either cut those recurring expenses or suspend them for a 90-day period,” Gillis said. “Some of them said yes and some of them have said no, but it’s important to ask.”
Turning off electric logging systems in buses parked for the indefinite future saved her thousands.
It is especially crucial during this time to track two types of losses, she said. The first is canceled trips already on the books. The other is monthly revenues over the past few years against this year’s performance. This is important data for applying for Small Business Administration loans and other assistance being offered under the stimulus package.
“You need to build your own storyline about what you’re losing due to the fact that the phone is not ringing,” Gillis said.
She shares these important strategies for quickly bringing expenses under control with employees so they can take similar actions with their personal finances and to ask for relief on their rents or mortgages and other monthly bills.
“Our employees need to use the same technique to help their financial health during this time,” she added.
‘Imagineering’ a future
And, despite what feels like a dire situation, planning for the future is still a must.
“When we get over the shock of all this, we must start imagineering the future,” she said.
She sees potential for buses being used in the short term for package transportation and as extra space for overwhelmed clinics, where people can be tested before being allowed into a building. Buses also could be used to support critical infrastructure movements — from moving the military to shuttling construction workers.
“You may have to remove seats in some of these examples,” she said.
“During this timeframe, construction companies have chosen to double the number of buses when they shuttle workers in and out,” said Gillis, explaining that one project she continues to have is supplying transportation for a larger construction project for which the contractor opted to double the number of buses to ensure social distancing.
Ultimately, the problem-solving coming out of this crisis will fuel innovations that change how things are done. Gillis, for example, sees the potential for buses be used more significantly to complement Amtrak, especially along corridors where ridership is low.
“This industry is full of ideas, and it’s through bringing you guys together and being able to listen and hear your ideas that we can really capitalize on the synergy of imagining a future together.”
Join UMA for the next online Town Hall meeting Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. on the Zoom platform to discuss the most current issues that matter to operators.