With just over 100 employees in Tea, 25 in Sioux Falls and 15 in Las Vegas, Weisser Distributing has had to make some changes to keep employees safe and business going through the COVID-19 pandemic.
CEO Eric Weisser said his company probably got a head start on taking precautions thanks to employees noticing an increase in glove sales that they ship. How the business is set up, in Las Vegas all inbound freight comes there and then goes out to Amazon warehouses; in Sioux Falls, all domestic freight comes there and then out to Amazon warehouses; and in Tea, they work on single package fulfillment that ship mostly to North American customers.
“Our employees were really the ones to say ‘what is happening.’ Like everybody else, we don’t know, but let’s find out,” Weisser said.
The company started taking precautions in February. They started closing their doors to vendors and outside visitors and began sending people home to work well before the city of Sioux Falls or the governor were talking about that.
Those employees who did all their work on a computer were asked individually what they needed to work from home. Computers, monitors and chairs were taken home with about 60 employees.
“We went employee by employee and said if you had to work from home tomorrow, what are your challenges, what do you need,” Weisser said. “We really made a customized plan for every single person, which included unplugging their computer they used at work.”
In the warehouse, they looked at every single job duty and figured out how they could make it safer. They had to order in PPE for their own people. Each person has their own box of gloves at their work station and they have a choice between wearing a surgical mask, their own mask or a scarf-like mask.
They also went to their cleaning company and signed up for enhanced cleaning. In addition to the general cleaning they do, now they come in and perform enhanced cleaning twice a week. On top of that, Weisser’s employees also wipe down their materials with a sanitizing spray that they bought locally. Warehouse employees used to go between stations all day long. Now they stay in one station for the whole day and use their own tape gun.
They closed off some high traffic areas and put up plastic chains, while also using directional signs to avoid coming close to other employees. They have propped some doors open so they do not touch doorknobs all day long.
Weisser said those employees working from home are more accessible now.
“When they were working in the office, we had people in and out of the office all the time, taking meetings in and out of the office all the time. Well now we know exactly where they are all the time, they’re at home. If we need to jump on a Zoom call or a phone call, they’re always available,” he said.
For those in the warehouse, a handful of the older employees self-selected to stay home for a couple of months. They have told everyone if they are sick to stay home.
They have tested a couple of people for the virus. Thankfully those came back negative.
“The sense of community around what’s happening is pretty neat, where everybody’s looking out for each other. People are from the Midwest - we stand next to each other, we shake hands, we high five. That has stopped. That’s been a change for sure,” he said.
They closed down the conference room. For people who still work in the office, they stay in their own offices and Zoom or call others that way rather than meeting in person in one room.
With the conference room closed for meetings, they have opened it up as an auxiliary break room for a limit of two people to take their break at the same time. Breaks are more scheduled now. In addition to the conference room, employees are also spreading out for breaks in the main office area.
Weisser has always catered in food for employees once a week. Now they have tripled that. On Mondays and Wednesdays they order lunch from local businesses and on Fridays they order treats for employees to take home and share with their families.
“Every Friday they go home with something for their families because we know they’re struggling as well,” he said.
These steps kept the company from laying off any employees and they actually hired 15 new employees since the pandemic started.
Weisser said when Amazon stopped accepting shipments for non-essential items for a few weeks, they ramped up the amount of shipping they were doing out of South Dakota with single package shipping. They hired 15 new warehouse associates in the last 30 days. That hiring was a surprise for Weisser.
“It’s really changed the whole model. Rather than having Amazon doing that work and paying Amazon to do it, we do it ourselves,” he said.
Weisser continued, “We have additional costs associated with that, but the good news is we’ve been able to find really, really high quality people because there are people out of work,” he said. “There’s unemployment, but we feel people in the Midwest want to work and they want to be busy.”
For Weisser, he is at the office in Tea about half as much as he was prior to the pandemic. He shares the homeschooling duties for his son with his wife so he is in the office about 50 percent less than before. He used to spend a couple of months in Las Vegas but that has stopped.
Weisser did get in one trip to Las Vegas in February right before they started telling people not to travel anymore.
While everyone is hoping to get back to a more normal life soon, Weisser is planning on this way of life to be the new normal for a while.
“We didn’t have to hire people. We could’ve shut off some sales, but we decided this could last for a while. We just saw an amazing opportunity for our company to keep growing. If two months ago, someone would’ve said ‘what’s your biggest challenge.’ I would’ve said ‘finding high quality workers. If i could find high quality workers we could grow faster.’ Well ta-da. We can find really, really high quality workers so we’re just using this as an opportunity to accelerate our growth. Some new opportunities came out of this,” he said.