June 18 2020 06:00 AM

Contractors use new safety guidelines and loan programs to endure COVID-19.

Photos: Utopian Landscapes

Peter Estournes, principal at Gardenworks Inc. in Healdsburg, California, started noticing talk about COVID-19 when he and his wife returned from a trip to Mexico, and she became ill about two weeks later. She was sick for about five days and tried to get tested but was told it wasn’t necessary, he says. She recovered, but the sickness got them both to pay attention to what was going on.

Shortly after that, the shutdown orders started coming. Gardenworks had just enough time to tell its maintenance team of about 10 employees to go home and plan to cease installation work over the next few days.

“We told them, ‘We’ve been asked to shut down for 14 days. We’re looking into whether we’ll be an essential business or not,’” Estournes says.

Nick Klotz, president of E.P.M. Lawnscape and Supply in Jackson, Michigan, says they saw the writing on the wall in March, so he and his team started to plan for a complete shutdown while his crews were still finishing snow removal work and performing early season cleanup.

“We didn’t really have a definitive answer as to whether we were named as essential or not, so it was kind of touch-and-go as to if we were going to be able to do work to service our clients,” Klotz says. “We tried to give our clients as much of a heads-up as we could.”

Even with that preparation, when the order came, it gave the team about half a day to cease operations, Klotz says. He directed the spring cleanup staff to return equipment and then apply for unemployment. The office staff was on limited hours, though they kept in touch with the field staff regularly during the unemployment with updates.

When things first began to get serious, Chip Woodiel, president of Uncommon Grounds LLC in Cookeville, Tennessee, debated closing down for two weeks out of caution. But they ended up going without a shutdown, just maintaining social distancing and keeping disinfectant wipes in the trucks.

“We really haven’t skipped a beat,” Woodiel says. “We’ve lost a few accounts just for people who had lost their jobs, but that’s understandable. Some of our commercial maintenance has temporarily throttled back, but they’re back on par now.”

Terra Phelps, owner of Utopian Landscapes LLC in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says she was relieved when landscapers were listed as essential workers in the state. From there, she started work on preparing her team to be as sensitive to customer concerns about the virus as possible. The company modified its safety sheets with updated information about COVID-19 in addition to the regular daily safety sheet, and they developed color-coded materials to remind the crew to look for symptoms such as cough, fever, tiredness or high temperature.

“It was a list of guidelines for the day, to let them know that we’re taking this seriously,” Phelps says.

She sent out an email blast to clients about the safety measures in place and to remind them to maintain distance when talking with the team while on the job, she says.

Gardenworks also created a script that crew members have to read and sign daily to remind them of safety guidelines. Estournes doesn’t think any official will check up on those scripts, but it’s an important step to remind the crews of how serious the virus can be.

“Our fear is that people aren’t going to take this seriously, and we’re going to end up being shut down again,” Estournes says.

Maintaining customers

While Gardenworks ended up classified as an essential service, the company decided to shut down through April out of caution, Estournes says. Throughout the shutdown, the company sent one-man “teams” to customers to take care of the basics: mowing lawns and managing the irrigation system.

“That’s quick, you can do it by yourself. It isn’t going to interfere or make a mess,” Estournes says. “We went through all of our accounts and within five days had them at least touched up.”

Uncommon Grounds has picked up a few clients throughout the pandemic, because homeowners are more likely to notice the state of the yard while stuck at home, he says. Keeping the lawn maintenance work going on provided a sense of normalcy. For a few situations where longtime customers lost jobs, his crews have taken care of the lawns regardless.

While the pandemic has continued, Woodiel has tried to keep on top of updates to stay within the guidelines and keep working. During April, his crews kept copies of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s declaration of landscaping as an essential service in trucks just in case local police came by to question them.

Even with a quick shutdown, Klotz expected a more gradual reopening plan. But landscape contractors were among the first cleared to reopen in May, and customers were eager to have work done.

“We crammed about three weeks’ work into about three days to get caught up,” Klotz says. “It was extremely difficult.”

Klotz keeps about 20 employees for the summer season. He worked with his team to implement the required safety procedures to reduce their anxieties about the virus and encourage them back to the job. His employees have taken on wearing masks and using disinfectants, along with other rules, without any complaints. While current guidelines require employers to supply a mask, Klotz makes certain his crew members have a full safety pack with two sets of rubber gloves, two sets of work gloves, a mask sanitizer and safety glasses.

“Safety has to be our top core value,” Klotz says. “It’s what we try and set as our standard.”

In California, local counties built appendices for construction site protocols for new safety guidelines, which Gardenworks adopted and developed as it started to get back to work. At first, the results weren’t ideal, says Estournes.

“I’d say that first week, we were probably 40% effective,” he says. “You’d walk by somebody and didn’t realize that your mask was down. It takes practice.”

The teams learned the new guidelines but had to relearn them as the company’s home county of Sonoma released more stringent protocols, Estournes says. That took more time, but the crew has gotten more effective. “Now we’re pretty much good with it,” he says.

While safety gear has helped crew members returning to work, it’s tough to change old business habits, Klotz says. His teams used to have regular Monday morning meetings with the entire team in one place. The team would discuss company issues and have crew members nominate each other for a gift card for jobs well done to build the team up. But the crew hasn’t been able to meet together for months.

On a recent landscaping job, Klotz’s foreman saw the homeowner pulling the trash cans into the house and attempted to go over and help out. While the intent was in the spirit of customer service, the customer ended up sending a complaint back to the office because they had an autoimmune disorder.

“They weren’t upset, but they just wanted to say, ‘You have to watch this around here,’” says Klotz. “So, something that we would’ve handed a guy a $25 gift card for in the year prior for going above and beyond, we actually had to reprimand him.”

To deal with travel to job sites, Klotz is issuing a fuel stipend on miles driven to crews, with crew members driving separately.

“A mowing crew could do 100 to 150 miles in a day,” he says. “It makes it a little more difficult.”

Phelps’ team members are assigned to specific vehicles for the day, she says. If vehicles were swapped for any reason, it meant completely sanitizing them.

“It definitely made scheduling projects very tricky,” she says. “Where you could plan ahead before and account for one specific truck and trailer to be out, now you had to account for maybe three separate ones.”

Parking meters and fuel costs became more of an issue for the company, which was an obstacle the company hadn’t initially anticipated with the onset of the virus, she says. The company had a plastic divider installed in one of the trucks similar to the kind used in a taxi cab to allow two to use a truck safely.

Considering cash flow

Gardenworks applied for coverage under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Payback Protection Program, Estournes says. The company also applied right away for a loan with the community bank it had used for 25 years. Being based in California, Estournes and his team had gotten in the habit of putting money aside for a rainy day, or a fire or poor air quality day, as is more likely.

Utopian Landscapes lost a large construction project that was set to progress just when the shutdown began, Phelps says. Her company was the recipient of a Payback Protection Program loan, the result of a 10-day process with strict guidelines for use. That backup has helped the company of about seven employees through the shutdown.

“For us, it was worth the time, because it does offer a little bit of peace of mind,” she says.

At the moment, Phelps is “being realistic” about larger projects for the season, meaning she’s starting to lay the groundwork and figure out logistics when those projects show up. But they’re prioritizing smaller landscaping projects that can be done in a day or two.

“So in case something really hits the fan and everything gets shut down, we can remain fairly flexible,” she says. She finds that fits for a lot of their clients as well, some of whom are recovering from heavier hits. The $50,000 hardscape project might not be possible, but a $3,000 lighting project is more likely.

Estournes says the company lost about eight maintenance accounts during the shutdown. Though some of the business was lost outright, most of it was just postponed. He also terminated a relationship with one client who demanded continuous service because other lawn care companies were mowing regularly during the shutdown.

“I’d rather have clients who respect what we do and understand that we’re trying to do the best for the people who work for us as well as for the community,” Estournes says.

Klotz had planned for a major downturn and had already started some difficult conversations with lenders to prepare. But at least at this point, he hasn’t seen an unwillingness to spend from customers, and he says he’s heard similar from other lawn care companies.

“Our landscape division is booked out through August or September,” he says. “Our maintenance teams are looking at the same thing. I think we’re down in revenue this year a bit but nowhere near as much as I anticipated.”

When Phelps sent out email blasts to clients to alert them to the new safety guidelines, she expected to field questions about the company’s status as essential workers. Instead, she got requests for additional work.

“That was the strangest thing to me,” Phelps says. “I would say 90% of the responses were, ‘Oh, can I get this project done? Can I get an estimate for this?’”

Phelps’ team has taken some customer interaction to digital spaces such as video calls and has even done some estimates remotely, she says. The company is booked out for several weeks at this point.

“I’ve had to let people know, if you’re calling to have something done within the next week or two, we’re not the company for you,” she says. “But people know we provide quality work and that we’re doing things as best as we can. So I think some people appreciate that and they’re willing to wait.”

Though COVID-19’s actual impact on the company’s budget remains to be seen, Estournes is looking forward to a potential bright spot.

“I’ve got to buy a couple trucks this year,” he says. “I’m excited about that because I should be able to get a really good deal if I time it right.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.