How HVAC Contractors Are Balancing Employee and Financial Health In The Era Of COVID-19
As most states across the U.S. see a rise in COVID-19 cases, industries grapple with how to maintain business while keeping employees and customers safe. As essential workers in the building and construction trade, HVAC contractors are reevaluating the way they have worked for decades.
Although every state has its own challenges, guidelines and requirements, there are some standard directives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such as social distancing. However, much is left up in the air due to the many unknowns of COVID-19. This leaves HVAC contractors to determine, as a collective, what best practices the industry should implement. From the east coast to the west coast, leading commercial HVAC contractors are sharing thoughts and ideas on how their businesses are successfully riding the waves and staying afloat throughout the pandemic.
As cities closed down, many HVAC contractors discovered it was harder to get permits approved or have new permits issued. Because projects were put on hold or halted altogether, some contractors were faced with condensing their office staff and crews.
Forward-thinking contractors like Mike Sicard, owner of Willamette HVAC in Hillsboro, Oregon, laid off employees early on so they could be ahead of the rush for unemployment benefits. He cut his team of 30 employees in half and focused on training those remaining to perform multiple jobs. His service manager now performs accounting duties, including payroll, while the dispatcher now also works on invoicing. Being one of the first areas in the country to be impacted by COVID-19, Sicard tried to keep his employees’ best interests at heart, while also keeping his business running smoothly.
Not every company has downsized employees, though. On the other side of the country, Jerry Goddu, project manager for Hickory Mechanical in Hickory, North Carolina, has kept his 20 employees busy and says he could hire a few more. They were able to keep staff on the payroll while limiting employee risk and exposure by decreasing how many hours employees work.
“We went to a four-day work week” said Goddu. “We learned that one day less exposure reduces the chances of encountering illness by 20%.” By focusing on safeguarding employees’ health, contractors keep teams in place and save money in lost labor and health insurance.
The Changing Outlook of Available Work
Commercial work for HVAC contractors has remained fairly steady, with a focus on service work. Sicard says his business used to have a 50/50 split between construction and service work. Since COVID-19 began it’s about 75% service work, with a vast majority of that work coming from maintenance contracts.
With a significant number of buildings across the country closed due to states’ work-from-home orders and social distancing regulations, a building owner or facilities manager will give commercial HVAC contractors access to the building. Sicard notes that it’s good that businesses are keeping up with preventative maintenance, because in some cases owners and managers are unaware of the HVAC unit needing repair since the building is unoccupied. More costly repairs are caught earlier thanks to upkeep on routine maintenance contracts.
Keeping Workers Safe
Before HVAC contractors send their technicians to a jobsite, they are considering their employees’ health and wellbeing. Some teams have high-risk employees—Goddu has several employees over the age of 65—and some live with high-risk individuals. It’s important to set guidelines for safe work practices to ensure everyone is protected.
Going beyond sanitizing trucks (wiping down door handles and cab interiors) and making sure all employees have access to their own sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE), Goddu also sat down with his employees and shared videos with them on how COVID-19 spreads. Hickory Mechanical enforces the important information from the videos with signage reminding workers to social distance by staying 6 feet apart at all times and implement good hygiene practices. His team has responded well to the information and realizes they must take these extra steps to ensure everyone’s safety.
“We had major layoffs in industries in Hickory, North Carolina, so some of these folks are the only ones working and providing an income for their families,” Goddu said. “They realize how important it is to stay healthy.”
Setting Customers’ Expectations
Keeping employees informed and well-equipped with PPE is just part of the new normal for commercial HVAC contractors. These businesses must also educate customers in their best practices, as well how customers can help ensure the wellbeing of the technician visiting their site. “Set expectations and be very clear with your customers,” says Sicard. “Don’t hesitate to establish very specific instructions for your technician’s access and needs.”
Willamette HVAC’s dispatcher asks customers a set of screening questions when calling to confirm the technician’s arrival time—asking pertinent queries such as has anyone in the home been ill or has the home been under quarantine. They also request that customers practice social distancing with the technician, ask about the location of the HVAC system and remind customers to clear away any items that may be around the system—technicians prefer not to touch items unnecessarily during the appointment. As a courtesy to customers and to protect their health, Willamette HVAC’s technicians also wear booties and masks when servicing or installing parts of the system that are located inside buildings.
Sicard believes he’s learned an important business lesson that will transcend the pandemic. When a crisis arises, he now knows—and recommends to others—the importance of having a response plan in place and implementing it swiftly. “Be proactive instead of reactive and conduct crucial conversations with employees,” he says.
That means being prepared to act quickly as regulations and conditions change in your state or region. As experts now say, there is no normal in the new normal. All industries are in uncharted waters when it comes to COVID-19, but the more honest contractors are, the easier it is to manage everyone’s expectations.
Lisa Zierfuss has served as product manager for a variety of tapes at Shurtape Technologies, LLC, an industry-leading manufacturer and marketer of adhesive tape. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from University of Wisconsin-Madison and has earned several product manager certifications from the Pragmatic Institute.