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How these Philly-area small businesses are coping with the coronavirus crisis

By April 10, 2020 No Comments

(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)

As we enter yet another week of mandatory shutdowns and shelter-in-place rules, many businesses in the Philadelphia area are adjusting to a different kind of reality. Of course there are companies that provide essential services and products that are operating as best as can be expected. The rest of us have been ordered to close our doors. But although most of us are seeing a slowdown in business, few have stopped operating altogether. So how are some businesses adapting to this new normal?

How DocuBank is helping employees work from home

Randi Siegel, the president of DocuBank, an online health-care document storage company based in Narberth, continues to operate her business as usual, but with some big changes. She’s sent all of her employees home to work and is heavily relying on communication and collaboration software Slack for messaging and meetings, which she says is more efficient than email and also creates a better sense of community.

“With our employees now working from home, our focus is on helping them navigate this new arrangement,” she says.

She’s doing that by helping them create suitable work spaces and even providing extra assistance, such as providing them with a desk or even a desk chair to avoid back issues, which has been a common request. She’s also sensitive to her team’s emotional well-being.

“We recognize that our staff is under additional stress now, as they navigate the challenges of working at home with their families,” she says. “So we are also offering limited mental-health therapy/counseling sessions to all staff at no charge.”

Running an “essential” business and taking care of workers

“We are an essential business that services multiple strategic marketplaces, including providing cable to the Centers for Disease Control and multiple ventilator companies,” says Tim Flynn, the owner of Allied Wire and Cable in Collegeville. “Our employees realize they are saving lives and are willing to come in every day to do so, no matter how apprehensive some of them might be.”

Flynn has been able to send most of his employees home to work remotely. But he still has to keep key operational and production people in the office, so he’s doing “a lot of cleaning” as well as making sure people are distanced. It’s working for now, but Flynn is concerned about the days ahead. “I expect things to become a lot more difficult if this continues for much longer,” he says.

Running a roofing business during the pandemic

Wyatt Kaller, who helps run his family business, Russell Roofing, with offices in Oreland and Princeton, is concerned about all of his employees, and particularly those that are out in the field.

“We are in a challenging position to do this because we operate in exterior construction, and many of our clients have active leaks, causing damage to their property, that we have been hired to repair,” he says. “We have done our best to remedy as many of our customers’ problems before the inevitable government mandated shutdown. We did this through practicing social distancing company wide and running a skeleton office with two people from admin and our estimators working remotely from home with contact-less appointments.”

Now that so much production has been halted, Kaller has been forced to cancel all customer meetings and is operating with the smallest crews possible when essential services are needed. Those production workers who still have work to do have been directed to wear gloves until it is absolutely necessary to take them off.

Bob Girard braces for the FMLA extension

Bob Girard’s company, Pottstown-based Valtech Corp., is a specialty chemical manufacturer that provides essential cleaning products to customers around the country. So the company keeps operating as best as it can. Office staff have been sent home to work remotely, and the remaining manufacturing and research and development staff are following strict protocols for safe distancing and frequent use of hand sanitizers, and are being asked to thoroughly wipe down their own and even common areas twice a day.

Girard is expecting the new, extended family leave requirements that recently took effect to have a big impact on his business, too, and he’s still “navigating” how this will be handled. “Although costs are to be offset through tax credits, it will have a negative impact on cash flow short term,” he says.

Having a disaster recovery plan helps

For years, experts have been telling small-business owners that they should have a disaster recovery plan, and although some may not have heeded that advice, the ones who did are seeing the benefits. Cody Jackson, an information technology analyst at Bartlett Bearing Co.in Philadelphia, is one of those people.

“For a few years now, we’ve been building and practicing a disaster recovery/business continuity plan,” he says. “We’ve taken steps that will let us continue to operate in the event of quarantine or lockdown.” Those steps include having their systems online for easy access with access, security and backup software in place to allow remote workers to do their work out of the office.

“I would say the best insurance option is to plan ahead,” he says. “That may not help anyone right now, but plan now and the next time something like this happens, you’ll be ready.”

Sell online and be safe

Even before he was forced to shut down, Steve DeShong, owner of 10th Street Hardware in Philadelphia, saw the writing on the wall and knew that he couldn’t sustain a safe level of customer traffic in his store. So before the city acted, he did.

He closed his store to the general public and instructed his customers to purchase online for either delivery or in-store pickup. “This allows us to provide urgent/emergency items without actually transacting a close person/person transaction,” he says.

DeShong also changed his payroll from bi-weekly to weekly so that he could give his employees more frequent paychecks. “We hope to continue conducting far reduced business as long as it can be done safely for our employees and customers,” he says.

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