Logistics Firms Endeavor to Keep Goods Moving as Much of Economy Shuts Down
Warehouse operators across the U.S. are sanitizing workplaces, providing protective gear to workers and separating staff as they try to keep supply chains running while much of the country’s economy shuts down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Some businesses, such as TJX Cos ., the parent of discount retailer T.J. Maxx, have suspended distribution and fulfillment operations in pre-emptive actions aimed at containing the pandemic. E-commerce behemoth Amazon.com Inc. temporarily shut two U.S. sites after workers there tested positive for Covid-19. The company said one has reopened and the other is scheduled to open April 1.
The efforts are part of increasingly aggressive actions logistics companies are taking to ensure goods continue to move through distribution networks, both to anxious consumers who have been stockpiling food and household supplies and, more critically, to hospitals and health-care providers under strain as coronavirus cases mount across the U.S.
“It’s a scary situation for all of us, but we know how important it is for our truck drivers to be here, for our warehouse people to be here,” said Richie Laecca, a 60-year-old warehouse dock foreman at Imperial Dade, a food-service and janitorial products distributor based in Jersey City, N.J.
“The priorities right now are all the supplies that would be needed for hospitals, nursing homes, and all of those things,” Mr. Laecca said. “It’s load after load after load coming.”
Grocery chains have sought to assure consumers that supply chains for critical goods are still operating without interruption. But workers at warehouses and trucking companies are facing the same concerns as other Americans over the spreading coronavirus, and companies are trying to keep them on the job even as stresses on operations grow.
Imperial Dade has an on-site nurse to check workers’ temperatures and is handing out protective gear such as gloves and filling spray bottles with sanitizer for delivery drivers, President Jason Tillis said.
The company isn’t allowing drivers of inbound trucks on the premises, and its own drivers aren’t helping customers break up freight shipments. At its warehouses, the company spread out lunch shifts and is limiting the number of employees in the break room at any one time.
“There’s not really a playbook for this,” Mr. Tillis said.
Some logistics hiring has caught fire in an economy that has seen historic job losses this month as many businesses close their doors or sharply scale back.
Demand for warehouse workers is “off the charts” in industries such as medical supplies and food and grocery, said Brian Devine, senior vice president of logistics-staffing firm ProLogistix, which works with companies including Walmart Inc. and Target Corp.
Amazon and Walmart have said they are looking to hire tens of thousands workers for their distribution operations. That means some measure of job safety for distribution and fulfillment workers, but also extra risk, as front-line employees balance economic and health concerns.
Mr. Devine said about 27% of workers who responded to a ProLogistix survey the week of March 16 said their workplace hadn’t taken extra precautions against the spread of the virus.
E-commerce fulfillment provider ShipBob said it set up coronavirus safety measures at its seven fulfillment centers in early March. That includes handing out masks and gloves to staffers and requiring all visitors, including vendors and drivers, to put on personal protective gear to enter its facilities.
Faced with a flood of orders for consumer goods, the company also has reconfigured its warehouse management system to have products like hand sanitizer ship out ahead of items deemed less essential. “We’ve had more volume go out in the last week than any other” outside of the holiday shopping surge between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, said Chief Marketing Officer Casey Armstrong.
The company also extended paid sick days for employees and raised pay by $2 an hour, Mr. Armstrong said, a step Amazon and some other companies have taken.
E-commerce logistics company Radial has adjusted meetings and shifted break schedules at its fulfillment centers. The company is placing its pack stations further apart and changing the way outbound orders are handled to minimize contact between those who pick goods and those who pack them into boxes, Chief Commercial Officer Tim Hinckley said.
XPO Logistics Inc., one of the country’s largest logistics providers, said it is practicing social distancing in its warehouses and has stepped up cleaning regimens of its sites around the U.S. XPO also has instituted paid pandemic sick leave and an employee assistance program that includes coverage for Covid-19 testing and treatment, the Greenwich, Conn.-based company said.
Still, high demand for protective gear like gloves and masks is complicating companies’ efforts to secure supplies for their workers.
Kenco Group, a third-party logistics company based in Chattanooga, Tenn., is “working aggressively to keep supplies flowing to all our sites,” said Chief Operating Officer David Caines. The company’s roughly 100 facilities remain open, although some have been briefly closed for deep cleaning. Equipment gets wiped down at the beginning and ending of each shift.
Kenco has enhanced its sick leave policy and relaxed its attendance demands. “But our folks continue to show up and work hard,” Mr. Caines said. “A lot of our employees are the only breadwinners left in their family unit.”