COVID-19 has altered business operations and consumer habits across the country, and the ripple effect has hit the nation’s labor force hard. Unemployment levels have skyrocketed, but several NATSO members have been working hard to keep their staff on the payroll.
“There is not a set of flashcards for the scenario we’re in right now,” said Darren Goetz, executive vice president of Mitten Inc., which operates Mitten's Travel Plaza, in Oakley, Kansas.
Amid all the disruption, Mitten’s tried to keep things as normal as possible. “Our biggest goal was not to send anybody home, not to leave anybody out and not to fire people. We didn’t want any of our 75–80 employees to suffer more than they had to during all of this,” Goetz said.
Instead, management shifted employees around. “With less traffic and fewer customers in the store, we needed fewer cashiers at the fuel desk,” Goetz explained.
Under COVID-19 regulations, self-serve food options were restricted, so drivers could no longer get their own cups of coffee, food off of a roller grill or a donut out of the case. “We identified an employee or employees to be the coffee person or the donut or pizza grabber,” Goetz said. “We kept them on their normal shift and just identified different roles for them, so they weren’t co-mingling tasks—like running a register and then going to get a cup of coffee, then going to clean.”
Cleaning is always important at a truckstop, but even more so during a global pandemic, so Mitten’s created a circuit of sanitizing. “One person dusted and then sanitized on a routine basis. We were wiping every door handle and surface,” Goetz said.
In the shop, work ebbed and flowed and was more sporadic. “We’ve had days during this where we were so busy, we couldn’t keep up, and we had days where we were incredibly slow,” Goetz said.
The location used the downtime to service its fleet of trucks and operational equipment. “We said, ‘While we’re slow, let’s do something to help us out that is mutually beneficial for our own shop guys and equipment.’ We took the opportunity to do some deep cleaning, moving those things that never get moved and clean them.”
Goetz said Mitten’s didn’t cut anybody’s hours and was able to keep everyone’s schedules consistent unless someone needed to make adjustments due to children being home from school. “Roughly 90 percent of everything stayed the same. They just had different roles when they got here,” he said, adding that there weren’t any employees who didn’t want to work.
Goetz said employee morale has also been affected. “You can’t have that social aspect of getting everyone together and ordering ice cream,” he said. “We have really been taking the time to give employees recognition for working outside their box and being able to adapt to their new situations day by day. It was a constant revolving door of praise and pats on the back.”
Mitten’s also increased hourly pay for $2 an hour through the end of May, and Goetz said employees were happy to know they not only had a job but also that it was the same job.
Management and staff have also tried to turn the lower customer counts into an opportunity. “It allows you to be more involved with your employees and to learn what they are concerned about or what they are not concerned about. It makes you step back and take a little different picture at the life behind everybody, and everybody’s different scenario,” Goetz said.
The staff has also tried to use the time to get to know those customers who are still coming in better. “Since you have to get Bill a cup of coffee every morning, take the opportunity to get to know him better than you knew him when he came in and paid for his coffee. Ask him about his family. We’ve had a lot of customers recognize that,” Goetz said.
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