Business owners are used to preparing for all sorts of disruptions — such as economic downturns or natural disasters. But no one was prepared for the coronavirus outbreak, which is like every imaginable disruption at the same time and everywhere. Commercial contractors in Boston, busy reaping the profits of the city’s building boom, suddenly find all construction projects shut down by government edict. Residential contractors in San Francisco find themselves ordered to stay in their own homes until May 1.
Sarah Moscatello, owner of The Heat Pump Store in Portland, Oregon, summed up her experience in a recent email.
“I have to deal with a weird thing that I've never had to deal with, which is the coronavirus and how to communicate to my staff and my customers what we're doing to be prepared,” Moscatello said. “And it's just a very strange thing. It's coming down on everybody, and we’re feeling the weight of it.”
Companies of all sizes are telling employees to work from home. In some areas, the government gives them no choice. But for HVAC technicians, that’s not realistic.
“Our office staff, of course, can definitely work from home, but you can't install ductless heat pumps from home,” Moscatello said.
As the stock market plummets and experts make predictions of how many people will perish, business owners find themselves trying to reassure both their employees and their customers.
“Right now, I see my job as comforting my employees,” said James Kester, co-owner of Colonial Heights Plumbing & Heating in Colonial Heights, Virginia. “We’ll do what it takes to take care of our staff and our customers.”
Like many business owners, Kester shared tips that he said should be common sense whether there is a pandemic or not: wash hands, wear gloves. He reminds employees that they could just as easily get the flu this time of year if they ignore these procedures. Cleaning has also become a greater concern for HVAC contractors: making sure staff properly clean the office, their tools, and even their work trucks. Moscatello is telling customers that her staff will disinfect their hands before entering a home, may disinfect regularly while working in the home, and will disinfect immediately after leaving the home. She sent out a letter explaining the steps The Heat Pump Store is taking.
The issues facing HVAC contractors go beyond their own businesses. Kester said he might have to modify schedules due to a lack of day care as schools close. One step Kester has yet to take is asking customers if they are showing any symptoms, since that offers no guarantee the house is disease-free.
“I don’t want to give my guys a false sense of security by asking if people are sick,” he said.
Travis Smith, owner of Sky Heating and Air Conditioning, also in Portland, Oregon, said he gives similar hygiene advice to his staff. Both Kester and Smith have changed their meeting practices as well. Smith has moved staff meetings to Sky’s warehouse so employees can stand 6 feet apart from each other.
Sky’s staff is young, but Smith worries about them spreading the virus to customers. He told them not to shake hands with customers. Sky operates as a paperless company, so Smith ordered a couple thousand styluses so people can sign their tablets. Only the customer touches the stylus, and only the tech touches the tablet.
Smith tells technicians to explain these precautions as being all about the health of Sky’s customers.
“It’s our duty and our responsibility to do everything that we can so that not a single person gets infected if somebody in our company were to come in contact with (the virus),” he said.
Sean Bucher, strategy manager at Gilbert, Arizona-based digital marketing firm Rocket Media, said some of his HVAC clients are doing no-contact visits. The tech will confirm the appointment and have the client send photos and other information about the problem. The client then stays in another part of the home while the tech does the work. Payments are made through an app.
Despite the precautions contractors put in place, many consumers aren’t taking chances. As of March 16, Chris Wisnewski, vice president of Integrate Comfort Systems (ICS) in Carlstadt, New Jersey, saw 75 percent of his calls canceled. ICS serves the New York City market. In addition to health concerns, Wisnewski said consumers are dealing with crowded spaces already and don’t want more people underfoot.
Contractors report that many customers see little need for HVAC services right now. Temperatures are moderate across the country, so customers are putting off work even if the entire system is down. Wisnewski said facilities managers see no need to maintain HVAC for empty office buildings.
New York City, like Boston and other cities, ordered a halt to all construction projects for the next few weeks. Wisnewski is assessing how much of his staff can be kept busy under these conditions. Work that has been on the back burner will sustain his staffing levels for a while, but ICS is planning for layoffs.
Governments at all levels are taking steps to help. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to zero and injected liquidity into the credit markets. Still, banks make credit decisions based on risk, and many are finding that too high right now, regardless of rates. Wisnewski said a representative from one bank told him it is freezing funding in New Jersey and nine other states in response to the crisis. Other areas are faring better so far. Smith said he is in the process of securing a second line of credit from his bank.
“I can’t carry a payroll with no income coming in,” Wisnewski said. “That’s just not doable.
“Stuff is outside of our control in a lot of ways.”