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US customs brokers, forwarders cautiously trickle back to offices

Social distancing, alternate work hours, cleanliness and employee temperature checks part of new workplace formula.

A Customs Brokerage employees practiced social distancing during Florida's COVID-19 response. [Photo: A Customs Brokerage]

After several months of stay-at-home orders, America’s customs brokerage and freight forwarding firms are preparing to reopen their offices in the weeks and months ahead. However, these companies do not anticipate a return to pre-coronavirus conditions, industry experts say.

“Our return-to-office plan considers that the future of work, as we have known it for all companies around the world, is shifting,” Marcia Lyssy, chief human resources officer for BDP International, told American Shipper.

Philadelphia-based BDP, which has branch offices throughout North America and the world, has begun implementing a phased plan for returning employees to their offices as local restrictions are lifted. This plan takes in account World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local government health and safety guidance.

Lyssy said the plan to safely reopen BDP’s offices includes a range of requirements, including mandatory office cleanings, hand sanitizer stations, employee health screenings and face masks, and social distancing. Office managers will ensure these measures are strictly enforced, she added.

Before A Customs Brokerage (ACB) began allowing its 50 employees to return to its main office in Doral, Florida, the company reorganized its workspace in accordance with CDC guidelines to put more distance between individual staff.

“We started to schedule employees within our larger departments to come in on alternate days to reincorporate slowly,” said ACB President Gabriel Rodriguez, whose staff had been teleworking since the end of March. “This flexible approach allowed about 75% of our staff to start to get back into the swing of the daily office routine.”

During this transition, some employees have been allowed to continue working from home for various personal reasons, such as health concerns and lack of childcare. Rodriguez expects these employees to return to the office by June 8.

Yet many customs brokers and forwarders throughout the country remain hesitant to reopen their office doors to the entire staff.

“We have not set a date when we will be bringing everyone back, since there are steps that need to be addressed prior to their return,” said Geoff Powell, president of C.H. Powell Co., with large offices in Boston and Baltimore. “We are taking a very conservative approach.”

Powell said his company is finalizing what investments it will make in terms of employee health and safety, as well as cleaning supplies and procedures.

Alternate in-office work schedules may be implemented by some companies that lack space to set physical social distancing between employees.

Remote control success

When stay-at-home orders were imposed in states across the Southeast, John S. James Co. found itself with a management and staff who had only known working in an office environment, said Jan Fields, the Savannah, Georgia-based customs broker and forwarder’s director of risk management.

Jan Fields, director of risk management, John S. James Co., and NCBFAA president (Photo: National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America)

“Fortunately, we were in the process of rolling out some technological measures, such as remote server hosting and document imaging, as part of our disaster recovery plans for the upcoming hurricane season,” she said. “We accelerated this timeline and executed our plans just as the situation unfolded.”

Of the 150 employees across its six offices, John S. James Co. was able to quickly set up 85% of its managers and staff in home-office environments. “The other 15% volunteered to work in the offices, performing duties that could not be efficiently relocated,” Fields said.

Fields, who also serves as president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA), described the remote work environment for John S. James Co. as “successful.”

“Our managers have continuous contact with their departments via virtual meetings and constant communications,” she said. “We’ve viewed videos of our clients’ operations, had virtual cocktail hours and received weekly addresses from the company owners to each employee updating our company and customer status.”

John S. James Co. has also used the slowdown in business to develop and improve process efficiencies, and to provide additional education and training to its staff. With outside sales calls on hold, the company’s sales team has been tasked with researching new customer relationship management (CRM) platforms to raise their work performance.

“We expect to exit this pandemic with a stronger company, ready to grow and to help our clients rebuild their businesses,” Fields said.

The company plans to fully reopen its offices in accordance with CDC guidelines in early July. While Fields said the John S. James Co. staff is mostly prepared to return to an office environment, social distancing and workspace sanitizing measures will remain in place for the time being to combat potential future outbreaks of COVID-19.

“Working remotely has taught us the value of communication with our work family,” Fields said. “When hurricane season comes around, we will all be prepared to simply move our desk to another location.”

Headcount and real estate

U.S. customs broker and forwarding operations leaders interviewed by American Shipper for this article said they have, so far, avoided headcount reductions during the slowdown in international trade due to the global pandemic.

Data shows all U.S. businesses that received PPP relief. Source: U.S. Small Business Administration

To do this, many companies in the industry took advantage of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), as well instituting other austerity measures such as eliminating non-essential spending, reduced hours, salaries and benefits, and hiring freezes.

“From a pure business perspective – numbers and cents – ACB should have made job cuts in the months of April and May,” said Rodriguez, whose company benefited from access to the federal government’s PPP and self-imposed measures undertaken by management and employees. “We did see a decline in our import and export volumes.”

June’s U.S. trade figures could prove even more disastrous, Rodriguez warned. “Our volumes are looking like the lowest since this pandemic started,” he said.

“We have been fortunate that we have not had to make any cuts in staff or payroll,” Powell said. “Of course, our business has been impacted, but we are not concentrated in any specific business sector that has really been impacted, like retail.

“The export business stayed relatively strong over the last two months but has been impacted by ocean carrier blank sailings and inability to get space on vessels,” he added.

Albert Saphir, a long-time industry consultant and president of ABS Consulting in Weston, Florida, said most of the customs brokers and forwarders clients that he has contacted experienced 25 to 30% reductions in business since the implementation of government travel and trade restrictions in March. International trade reductions are expected to continue for the industry over the next two to three months, he said.

In the long run, some U.S. customs brokerage and forwarding operations may close if they cannot find ways to further reduce operations costs. “Unless Congress passes another relief package for small businesses soon, I am certain that there will be industry layoffs,” Saphir said.

Saphir also believes that many customs brokers and forwarders will use their recent home-office experience to either reduce office footprints or negotiate better leasing terms with landlords. There are no federal legal requirements in the U.S. preventing customs brokers and forwarders from utilizing home office space to conduct business.

“With the technology available today, it’s clearly easier than ever before to do this work from home,” he said. “We have become much more tolerant of a child making noise or a dog barking in the background during these recent months.”

Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves articles by Chris Gillis.

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Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.