Whatever It Takes
Gas prices stopped setting record highs in August, but they’re still significantly higher than they were even a year ago, and experts predict the days of $3-per-gallon gas are history. In the cleaning industry and many others, some creative solutions to expensive fuel and energy costs have included allowing employees to work from home, implementing four-day work weeks, eliminating gas-guzzling company vehicles and placing speed restrictions on the company fleet.
The way building service contractors’ employees travel to and from work varies depending on the job, the labor pool and the region. Janitors can make as little as minimum wage in some markets, and they don’t always have access to a vehicle. Contractors in large, metropolitan areas expect that most workers will be using public transportation to get to work sites, but in areas without strong public transit infrastructures, employees are feeling the crunch of high gas prices. With that added pressure, businesses in many industries are concerned that workers might soon not be able to afford to drive to work. No matter where a BSC is located, the goal is always the same: Do whatever it takes to make sure people can get to work.
Most BSCs haven’t seen employees affected so much by gas prices that they’re unable to get to work — but little things point to them being more pinched than before.
“They’ve not not shown up for work but they have not come to pick up paychecks,” says Mary Miller, CEO of Jancoa in Cincinnati. Instead of making an extra trip to get their checks, more employees are asking that the checks be mailed, she says.
Gary Green, CEO of New York City-based Alliance Building Services, agrees that the threat is there.
“It makes sense, with the gas prices, and with sometimes the wages that are out there, for people who are protected by the union, that they couldn’t afford to get to work,” Green says.
Whether employees are union or not, and in the city or not, they have to get to work.
Where employees live matters to all BSCs, because whether employees have a car or not, they must be able to get to job sites consistently and on time. Strategic placement of employees, or matching them with accounts that they will be able to access, is a priority for many contractors.
At My Cleaning Service in Baltimore, President Lisa Bands has always made it a priority to place employees where they could easily commute using public transportation.
“I’ve always paid attention to that. It’s been one of those standards, to make sure they have a way to work — not necessarily because of the price but just because they have to be able to get there,” Bands says.
More than half of Bands’ employees take the bus to their job sites, while about a quarter of workers are transported by the company. This summer, the company had to drop some customers that didn’t want to pay more to account for the gas price increase, and the cost to transport employees would have been profit-prohibitive.
“But for the other quarter of the company, they go from job to job to job, depending on the day of the week,” Bands says. “It’s different jobs every day and you never know where those jobs are going to be, and that’s what’s hurting because if competition’s closer, they don’t need to charge a fee. That’s where we’ve lost several jobs.”
That hasn’t stopped the contractor from gaining new business to make up for that which was lost, however. Business is booming, Bands says.
For some BSCs, high gas prices are only compounding travel problems for employees. In New York City, mass transit strikes can throw a wrench in the works. Green deals with that by being prepared to rent a fleet of vehicles to transport workers to job sites.
In mountainous and rural Colorado, the weather is often the culprit keeping workers from making it to job sites — and Jim Sutton, CEO of Better Business Cleaning, Erie, Colo., keeps employees as close to their job sites as possible. And that foresight, though it didn’t used to have anything to do with gas, is paying off now for the company as workers have short commutes if possible.
Employer-sponsored transport or carpools
One method companies are using is to provide a van service or shuttle to get workers to job sites. However, that’s getting less popular with the increase in gas prices. Jancoa used to provide transport for its employees. In fact, about 58 percent of them were driven to and from work by the company.
“Even before this year — and we stopped doing that two years ago — the costs were exorbitant,” Miller says. But the service wasn’t stopped because of gas prices; it was stopped because employees told management they would rather find their own way to work if it meant the company could pay them a little more, having slashed that expense. Now, more than 80 percent of employees carpool, Miller says.
Miller encourages employee creativity in getting to work — and carpooling is made easier still since many workers are hired through referrals and are family members and friends of employees.
Sutton’s employees mostly drive themselves or get rides to work, rather than carpool, because they’re fairly spread out. But that makes matching employees with close jobs even more important.
“We know that if people have to travel too far for part-time or additional work, specifically, that they weren’t going to stick around too long,” he says.
It’s not that his company hasn’t considered providing transport, but that just isn’t part of the business model. It has worked out better for the company and for employees that workers independently find a way to work.
Green says some of his employees who drive fleet vehicles have been allowed to take them home, but that policy may have to be revisited.
“That’s become a much harder decision, with what’s happened with gas pricing. It’s a difficult decision and we may need to cut down on that for obvious reasons,” he says.
A van service became the only solution to get employees to work at some major My Cleaning Service accounts. Bands thinks that’s a better strategy than having one employee who has a car drive all the workers for certain accounts.
“A lot of companies do more work out in the suburbs where one person has a car, and everybody piles in and goes there,” she says. “But if that one person’s out, then the entire crew is out.”
With the addition of some new light rail lines that will bring workers closer to those accounts, however, it’s possible that employees will be asked to take the train to the closest stop and then the company will pick them up there. That would be a lot cheaper, gas-wise, then taking workers from the city to the suburbs to get to the job, Bands says.
In areas where public transportation is available, it is the preferred and sometimes the only way employees can travel to work.
“We have the best mass transit system in the world in New York City and that’s how, I’m going to say, 90 percent of our workers in the field get to work,” Green says.
Since most of Alliance Building Services’s workers live in urban areas, most use mass transit, making it pretty easy to get to work. However, in the outlying suburban regions of the company’s service area, it can be difficult for workers.
“This is not the highest-wage industry for people to afford their own vehicles so it is problematic sometimes for blue collar employees to get to their job,” he says. “So the gas prices increasing is only going to make getting suburban employees to urban or suburban office buildings that much tougher.”
Baltimore, too, has a good mass transit system, Bands says, which provides an inexpensive alternative to owning and running a car.
“I know that the price of a bus pass has not gone up in the past year, and half of the company rides the bus exclusively,” she says. “They’ll tell me how horrible [the economy] is, but it’s not about transportation. It’s more about the cost of food going up and those types of things.”
Some cities just don’t have transit systems that are extensive enough for BSCs’ workers to use.
“Most of our people kind of come from a couple of general areas, and we don’t have public transportation in Cincinnati so that’s definitely a detriment to us,” Miller says. “We do have buses, but they stop at midnight, so when you have full-time employees, that doesn’t help you in any of the downtown buildings that we do.”
When public transportation is widely available, getting to work is seen as employees’ responsibility, and when BSCs can help out or when an account is on the line, they may step in to help. My Cleaning Service even goes so far as to raffle off bus passes as incentive for work well done.
Another option for BSCs to consider is switching to daycleaning to enable employees to take advantage of public transportation routes that may not run later in the evening. While Jancoa does dayclean some accounts, most of its accounts on bus routes are multi-tenant, Miller says, and are not interested in changing cleaning times.
Even though times are tough for lower-wage employees, most BSCs are willing to work with them to ensure they’ll be able to get to work. It might require some additional communication and creativity on the part of both parties, but it will pay off for both in the end.
BSCs Crunched By Fuel Costs
BSCs know they have to be open to re-evaluating how their companies are responding to employees’ needs. They, too, are feeling the crunch of high prices.
Lisa Bands says that while business is booming for My Cleaning Services, costs seem to be spiking.
“All our supplies are going up and gas is going up — it’s gone back down a little but not enough to offset everything else. And plastics are so much higher than they were before,” she says.
With fuel prices affecting vendors and prices of products and materials, janitorial companies will have to deal with the ultimate affect on their bottom lines.
“Gas affects all the vendors now,” Gary Green says. “And here, people are putting pressure during a recession to squeeze you down, and then you’re squeezing down your vendors, then you’re getting squeezed while your costs and your vendors’ costs are going up. It’s a difficult combination.”
For Jim Sutton, increased gas prices are making him look at his business as well as his personal driving habits.
“It hasn’t greatly changed how we’re doing business because we’ve always been real conscientious about making it work for employees,” he says. “It certainly is on my mind, it certainly is part of what we do as we move forward.”