Responding to the coronavirus

Responding to the coronavirus

Contractors nationwide are dealing with the consequences – for better or worse – of COVID-19. Here's what you told us.

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We asked about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on your businesses. You responded. 

Nationwide, companies are being forced to adjust to unexpected consequences of the coronavirus. Some companies are seeing some surprising benefits, while others are operating cautiously as they fear the worst is yet to come.

Here's some of what you've told us so far:

APRIL 28:

Bonnie Craig, office manager

C & R Landscape Services, Inc., Woodinville, Washington

Navigating COVID-19 restrictions and regulations has been difficult for C & R Landscape Services, who had to cut staff due to the pandemic.

“We are still open and doing business,” Craig said. “We have lost some customers and have been unable to bring on our annual summer workers.  Our year-round employees’ hours have been cut way back.”

Craig added that having clients who have found themselves unemployed due to state closures has put a strain on the business.

“Some customers have postponed their jobs due to lack of funds, as well as cancelled service for the same reason,” she said. “A few of our customers have stated they will be calling us back after the state opens back up and they get back to work. This is normally our busy time of year. As it stands now, I am not sure how we are going to survive the coming winter months. Only time will tell.”

Craig said that even with these bumps in the road, she does not anticipate COVID-19 having a bigger impact than the great recession.

“I also do not feel that in the end it will be worse than the 2008 recession, if our governor does not take too long to open up our city again,” she said.

Craig added that she feels landscaping is a service that people will continue to need.

“It may change the industry some, but I do not think too much,” she said. “People will still need landscapers. Companies will still want their facilities to look nice and will still hire out to make that happen. Elderly people will still need helpers to maintain their properties. Busy people will still want their place to look nice and will pay for that to happen.”

For now, crews at C & R Landscape Services will continue to work hard and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We are allowing them to drive to job sites individually, and work separately,” Craig said. “They are doing different jobs altogether rather than working as a team.”

APRIL 9:

Paul Rapoza, president & founder

Rapoza Landscape, East Falmouth, Massachusetts

Rapoza Landscape is busy.

President and Founder Paul Rapoza said that due to the coronavirus threat, his clients are flocking to their vacation homes earlier than ever before.

“We’re a second home market, so vacation homes,” he said. “We’ve never seen this many of our clients at their Cape homes this time of year. People are trying to get away from it in the cities, so they’re coming to their vacation homes and hunkering down.”

Rapoza said the company has had very few cancellations.

“We’ve experienced people pushing jobs back or putting them on hold, but we’ve also experienced people calling in and we’re still doing estimates,” he said. "We’ve had just as many people sign up for new work.”

Because crews are still 100% operational, Rapoza said the team is being very vigilant about social distancing.

“We implemented all the CDC guidelines for social distancing,” he said. "We’re keeping guys out in the yard. We’re not allowing anybody in our office. We’re not having meetings. We usually have a kickoff meeting in the spring, but we totally scrapped it and said we’ll do it later when everything calms down. Basically, we’re just going out doing the work and coming back. Anything outside of that is on hold.”

Rapoza said that while necessary, social distancing measures have been hard on the sales team when they go to give estimates.

“We’re still sending the sales team out,” he said. “We talk to the clients and get as much information as we can over the phone. Then, we tell them we’ll do the estimate at a distance. It’s definitely strange. Sales is all about building rapport with people and it’s awkward to not shake someone’s hand and to stay away from them.”

All of these measures will hopefully keep his crews safe, but Rapoza said having someone contract COVID-19 and spread it is his biggest fear at this time.

“One of the things we worry about is if someone from our team gets it,” he said. “Then they inadvertently expose other team members to it. We’ve always had small teams, but now we’re sending one person in a company vehicle and asking the other person to use their personal vehicle. We’re trying to keep as much distance as possible between team members.”

Rapoza isn’t too worried about any financial strain just yet and says he doesn’t feel it will be worse than the impact of the 2009 recession.

“2009 was tough for us, we were down like 23%,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be anywhere near that.”

Ryan Panarese, landscape & snow manager

Constantine Property Management, Loudonville, New York

Panarese said that while his crews are performing maintenance, he’s hoping to get clarification from state officials in order to hopefully offer the rest of their services.

“We are operational,” he said. “We’re pretty much all commercial maintenance. The state has deemed our services as essential, with some limits. It’s strictly maintenance and weed control here in New York. They’ve pretty much said nothing cosmetic and that’s about as broad as you can be. We’re kind of scratching our heads as to if annual mulching is considered cosmetic or not. We’re still trying to get clarification.”

So far, he hasn’t had any customers cancel jobs.

“All of my customers can still work from home,” he said. “I’ve been fairly proactive with all of our customers and letting them know what’s going on.”

Employees at Constantine Property Management are social distancing, but Panarese said he’s having trouble finding enough sanitation supplies for them.

“All of our trucks have disinfectants in them, and we are wiping all the touch points down twice a day” he said. “I’m still trying to get my hands on hand sanitizer and masks. The guys need them. I told them if they see it, grab it and we’ll reimburse you. Basically, help us help you.”

Panarese said the company has implemented a one person per truck rule, and once jobs get closer to their main office everyone will direct report.

In addition to finding supplies, Panarese said he’s limiting overtime for now, but expects that will all change once the stay-at-home orders are lifted.

“Landscape is one division of our company, we do a whole bunch of other stuff like trucking,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the hours and overtime at bay, but things will hit a bottleneck once things go back to normal. As soon as someone says ‘go,’ our clients will ask ‘why aren’t you here yet?’ People will want to be mulched by Memorial Day and definitely by the Fourth of July.”

Before the coronavirus hit, Panarese said crews were already out doing cleanups.

“This was actually the earliest we were ever out in the field,” he said. “We were out in mid-March and were starting to do some light cleanups… and then, we got a late March storm, and we got six inches of snow. Then the virus came into play.”

Until things change, Panarese said everyone will stay cautious and crews will do what they can.  

MARCH 30: Brandon Barker, commercial operations manager

J. Barker Landscaping Company, Bedford, Ohio

For now, J. Barker Landscaping Co. is still operational in a limited capacity.

“We have closed down our main office until April 6th and have allowed office staff, sales people and account managers to work from home,” Barker said. “Our company offers a variety of services that go outside of the ‘landscape services’ realm. Those services are demolition, dumpster rentals and trash removal/sanitation. These services are considered essential according to state officials in Ohio. We have cut back on some of our landscape services, but we are still probably running 70% of our full landscape operation.”

Barker added that the company is still servicing five local hospitals as well.

“We maintain 5 hospitals in Northeast Ohio and numerous other medical facilities,” he said. “We want to make sure that they are getting the service that they need to be fully operational.”

When the COVID-19 crisis first began, Barker said the business did receive some cancellations, but the majority of those customers have come back.

“There have been a few delays in some of our jobs, due to the uncertainty of our current situation. But the delays have only lasted a few days and work has continued on afterwards,” he said. “Customers tend to not mind us working since we are outside and not coming in contact with them.”

While work continues, Barker said he is concerned about staffing, as J. Barker Landscaping Co. typically utilizes H-2B workers.

“There is much uncertainty as to what will actual be the outcome in regards to our H2B workers,” he said. “Right now, it’s looking like we may receive some but not all of our H2B workers. We just found out this week that workers who had not previously worked in the U.S. are being turned away from one of the U.S. Consulate in Mexico, preventing them from obtaining their visas. Returning workers seem to be in a better position and have obtained their visas. We hope there are no issues at the border when they try to cross later this week. Luckily, the majority of our workforce is not H2B, so we should still be in decent shape with our work force. We have already been focusing on recruiting and interviewing new hires in the U.S. to make up for any H2B shortage.”

Barker said he is also concerned about how COVID-19 will impact residential design/build projects.

“Our biggest concern is how this is going to affect our potential residential design/build and landscape construction projects in 2020,” he said. “We would imagine that planning or starting a new landscape project is taking a backseat to a variety of goals and concerns for our residential customers. People might be less willing to invest in a new landscape when there is much uncertainty on how this pandemic will affect the U.S. economy. But we want customers to know that we can move forward with any of their landscape needs because of the safety and health precautions that we are taking as a company.”

In order to keep employees and customers safe, the company has staggered start times, maintained six feet of distance during team meetings and limiting the number of people in confined spaces by having only one person in each truck.

 

 

MARCH 27: John Wimberg, vice president

Wimberg Landscaping, Cincinnati, Ohio

Wimberg said that while he’s not panicking yet, he is concerned about the uncertainty the coronavirus pandemic will continue to cause.

“We’re a little worried,” he said. “We’re a pretty good-sized company so we might be able to withstand a little better than some of the small companies.”

Wimberg Landscaping has about 50 employees, and according to Wimberg, did around $5 million in sales in 2019.

Despite all non-essential businesses being closed in Ohio, Wimberg said his crews are still operational.

“It was very vague on what was essential,” he said. “They basically said that anything time sensitive was permitted. So, we’re going to keep our basic services going here for as long as we can. We’re giving our people that option that if they want to take the state-supplied unemployment until the shutdown ends they could. The uncertainty definitely leaves you a little uneasy.”

Wimberg added his company had been initiating safety and sanitation procedures before the stay-at-home began. 

“A couple of weeks ago we started doing stuff like social distancing, wiping things down more and having one guy clock everybody in in the morning,” he said. “We told people not to come into the office, which is separate from our warehouse, unless they absolutely had to. We’ve been trying to arrange for each person being in separate trucks. So far, it’s worked out.”

The company has also been keeping in touch with its clients to let them know they’ll still be out there working.

“We did an email blast to everyone to let them know what we are doing, and we have a Facebook page that we’ve been updating,” he said. “There’s been pretty positive feedback. I think people just like looking out the window and seeing a bit of normalcy.”

Despite reassuring customers, Wimberg said he has had some cancelations.

“When this first hit, we had a few people cut back on what they were going to do or cancel the job,” he said. “We had one of our bigger customers cancel a couple of decent sized projects. At the same time, I would have thought that our phone lines would have been drying up, but we still got people calling in and looking for work.”

Wimberg said that to make it through, he’ll be using how the company handled the Great Recession as a kind of business model.

“We’re looking back to 2008 and 2009 and looking at what was good then and what was bad,” he said. “Back then, we tried to slash a lot of costs, and went through and asked ‘what do we really need.’ We cut back our advertising a lot and some extra services we didn’t really need. At this point, we haven’t really slashed anything.”

Josh Wise, owner

GrassRoots Tree & Turf Care, Acworth, Georgia

On one hand, Josh Wise has watched five customers call and cancel their service specifically because of COVID-19.

On the other, he’s also seen his sales at GrassRoots Tree & Turf Care in Acworth, Georgia, actually grow this year as opposed to last. He said he had a higher cancel rate last season, and in that same time, he had just under 550 new accounts for the first few months of the year. Right now, he’s looking at 900, and he’s nearly got 200 new clients this week alone.

“A lot of people had trip plans, but now they can’t go anywhere and do anything and they’re getting all these refunds, they’re saying, ‘honey, let’s do something with our lawn and landscape,’” Wise said.

He said he acknowledges the severity of the situation: His crews are practicing social distancing, and they’ve changed the way they do group meetings to a larger circle outside rather than sitting around an office. Any shipments to the office are being instantly sprayed with Lysol and equipment is being wiped down more than usual. “You constantly hear the sink turning on and hands being washed,” he said. “Everybody’s being cautious. Employees are just going from home to work, and from work to home.”

But he’s also remaining upbeat. Among his 28 employees, Wise said he’s told them he’ll be flexible, as one employee who has a weaker immune system is already staying home for the next few weeks. Business-wise, things seem to be humming along. Wise has increased his advertising, too, so more people are seeing his company’s name.

“All in all, things are going really well here,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to get really bad. I really don’t.”

Amanda Linder, owner

Rolling Hills Landscapes, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Linder said that when the stay-at-home order went into place, and non-essential businesses were forced to close, talking to her local municipality allowed the business to finish a job that was already started.

“What happened was, I called the municipality where we had a job open,” she said. “We are doing an engineered wall, so we dug out about six feet back and six feet high of earth in someone’s yard. When I reached out to the police in the area, they said it’d be more of a public safety issue to let it go, so they let us keep going.”

Since then, Linder said her state senator has made it clear that landscapers and lawn care workers are considered essential.

But even with being able to work, Linder said some clients are still canceling their upcoming projects.

“I’ve had it go both ways,” she said. “One lady called and said that because they had to cancel some vacation plans, their home improvement projects are now moving up. We were able to move her forward on the schedule. I did also have a patio project where a couple, because of the uncertainty over the next few weeks, pressed pause. Another project said they are laying low for now because of what’s happening.”

After changing their business model about a year ago to only focus on hardscapes, Linder said she’s uncertain about how the coronavirus will impact future projects.

“We’ve talked about it and see it going both ways,” she said. “Maybe, if more people are inclined to stay around and be closer to home, they’ll take a look around and say, ‘maybe it’s time we do something here. If someone has been out of work, they might find the need to hold off altogether.”

While some landscape companies are typically gearing up for spring this time of year, Linder said the coronavirus hasn’t interrupted too much.

“Usually, March is kind of sketchy,” she said. “There’s about six to eight weeks where we are down completely in the winter. Now, I’m usually getting the early birds. The work in the early spring is usually just carry over from the previous season. It’s not until April where we start to see more.”

Linder is hoping things return to normal soon, and maybe that this unexpected pandemic will help to fill out some of the company’s slow season later in the summer.

“We’re hoping everything springs back by the middle of summer,” she said. “From the Fourth of July to back to school time is usually a bit slower. Hopefully this will propel us during that time.”

John Mueller, president

Mueller Landscape, San Diego, California

John Mueller knows it’s a scary situation, and in California, where the state issued mandated shutdowns earlier than most others, coronavirus has been a hot topic for weeks.

Yet after some of the initial concerns over whether his company had enough saved up to survive a long-term shutdown – California considers landscaping an “essential business” because of its safety and sanitary benefits – Mueller said tensions have cooled at his company. In fact, he’s seen an uptick in sales and job applications.

Usually, the industry-wise labor shortage is so severe that one advertisement might draw a single interested applicant, Mueller said. But now, with other businesses laying off employees – some temporarily, some permanently – things are going quite differently. He can even afford to be picky with who he selects to join the crews.

“It was extremely hard to find quality help,” Mueller said. “Now, I run an ad, I’m getting more than a dozen a day. Most of these people don’t have experience… but at least I am getting people who are calling up.”

His company is a smaller company with two-man crews who practice social distancing as much as they can, and Mueller has stressed to his employees that they not come in if they feel sick at all. “When the crews get back at the end of the day, we use Lysol and spray down everything in the truck, we do an extra cleaning that wouldn’t normally get done,” he said.

Mueller is certainly seeing some benefits from the COVID-19 concerns, but he acknowledges they could be temporary. “It’s day by day,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s hour by hour. People are being laid off right now by the millions all over the country. We just don’t know what happens next.”

Adam Coupe, owner

Coupe’s Cut Lawn Services, Carmel, New York

New York City might be the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., but an hour’s drive away in Carmel, Coupe said its business as usual for him.

“We’re outside and by this time of year we’re already approved to do a whole bunch of commercial work,” he said. “And all that money is budgeted and spent… right now we’re busy and as far as New York says we’re an essential business and allowed to be out working.”

In fact, Coupe says the stay-at-home order is allowing crews to finish some jobs faster.

“We don’t really have any contact with anyone when we’re outside,” he said. “Especially now, when we’re in these parking lots and there’s very little traffic. We’re getting a lot of work done and it’s usually a mad house, but there’s no one here to bother us.”

While working, crews are adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“We’re trying to maintain that six feet of social distancing between each worker,” Coupe said. “We’re putting less guys in the trucks and taking more trucks to the job. Guys usually like to eat their lunches in the truck, but we’re not doing that anymore. We’re just sitting out on the curbs. We’re cleaning the trucks daily and taking more measures there.”

So far, Coupe said he hasn’t lost any jobs because of COVID-19, but no new jobs are coming in.

“Honestly, right now it’s business as usual,” he said. “The only thing I can say is that right now the phone isn’t ringing for new customers. The phone is completely dead, when as long as the sun is shining, people are usually calling. The customers we have now are doing stuff, but I think there’s a big hold on anybody who didn’t previous have landscape services but were thinking about it.”

Coupe added he feels the community is happy to see landscaping crews still out and about.

“There’s no customers telling us not to show up,” he said. “Everyone is eager to see us out here. I think most of our customers are happy to keep the economy rolling, and do it safely, rather than cancel everything.”

With not knowing how long the stay-at-home order will be in place, Coupe said some plans for the business will change.

“We were looking to hire one or two more guys for this season, but now that’s been put on hold indefinitely,” he said.

Coupe added that the company is researching small business loans that will become available for those affected by the pandemic but has no immediate plans to apply.

“Luckily, with how we run our business on the financial side, we’re prepared for these kinds of things,” he said.

Right now, he said his biggest worry is clients not being able to pay on time.

“The main concern that I have is that we’re in a service industry and for us to make a dollar we have to spend dollars,” he said. “We’ve got to put the guys in the trucks, put gas in the trucks and put gas in the equipment. Now with all this coming down the road, I’m worried the money is going to get short. People are out of work, they’re cutting back… how long will it take for us to see that money coming in? People will be paying late or pushing us off. When it comes down to it, people have to pay their mortgage or their utilities and then they say, ‘the landscaper can wait.’”