KNOXVILLE – Jimmy Haslam visited seven Pilot Company truck stops in Northeastern Ohio during the last week of April.
Like the Knoxville-company’s 28,200 employees are now all required to do, the CEO was wearing a mask.
“It’s just something you get used to,” Haslam said.
It’s one of the many safety precautions implemented at Pilot, named No. 10 on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies, in an effort to protect employees and customers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Those safety efforts were a huge deal for the company, but they turned out to be just one factor in a roller coaster of a month. Amid the pandemic, the bottom fell out of the global petroleum market.
The leadership team went into overdrive. Looking ahead, Haslam hopes to “slowly and prudently” get to a new normal, he told Knox News in an exclusive interview.
Here’s how the leadership team kept the company and America’s trucking industry humming.
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Truck stops deemed essential
Pilot’s COVID-19 task force launched in February, but its most challenging 10-day stretch didn’t arrive until March 9, when the petroleum market took its hardest hit in almost three decades.
Then the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11.
Two days later, Haslam and the senior leadership team began to transition 1,200 call center and corporate employees to working from home while still supporting the 27,000 employees in 44 states and six Canadian provinces working in stores and on the roads.
After working with the White House and U.S. Department of Transportation, truck stop travel centers were declared an essential business on March 16, ensuring truck drivers transporting goods across the country could still access fuel and food.
On March 17, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Jim Mullen told the National Association of Truck Stop Operators that it was critical truck stops remain open 24 hours a day while adhering to CDC guidelines. It wasn’t an easy task.
New dining, cleaning procedures
Once deemed essential, the Pilot task force began grappling with what “open” looked like as the virus raged across the U.S.
Though they’d dealt with regional natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and nationwide tragedies like 9/11, there was no playbook for an incident that would affect all of the more than 780 Pilot truck stops at once for an indeterminate amount of time.
“The speed at which this moved, and then the uncertainty is, I think, unprecedented,” Haslam said.
The situation was made more complicated because of the round-the-clock nature of the business and the constant flow of customers from across the country into the stores.
Pilot closed its more than 630 restaurant dining rooms, self-serve food stations and drivers’ lounges. The essential services stayed intact – truck drivers could still get fuel, shower and purchase to-go or prepackaged food to eat in their trucks.
Employees cleaned restrooms, food counters, gas pumps and pin pads every four hours. That practice continues.
Pilot’s 5,200 showers are cleaned after each use with degreaser, floor cleaner and disinfectant. Travel centers are deep cleaned each week. Pilot has always promoted the cleanliness of its facilities, but Haslam said that has become even more appealing to customers.
Stores are marked with social distancing signage and employees have been provided with personal protective equipment and work behind plexiglass shields.
Employees who test positive for COVID-19 are directed to isolate for 14 days. Their stores are cleaned and disinfected by a professional cleaning service; during that time, in-store operations may be suspended.
As of May 6, 57 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and there was one death.
“Our Pilot family is completely devastated and heartbroken by the loss of one of our team members to the COVID-19 virus. Our thoughts are with his family during this difficult time and our team members who worked alongside him. We have made grief counselors available for those impacted. This is an extremely difficult and challenging time. His family and loved ones are in our thoughts,” according to a Pilot spokesperson.
Of the 57 positive cases, 49 of them were employees at the store level.
Team members have received an additional $2 an hour in pay and emergency paid sick leave.
New technology for truck drivers
Truck drivers are encouraged to use the Pilot Flying J app for everything from mobile pay to reserving showers in order to cut down on pin pad touches.
The company is testing new technology including a touchless experience at gas islands in which customers can scan loyalty cards and only have to handle the fuel pump. Contactless credit card capability is being explored.
“I think the country was headed toward more of a touchless world, and I think the COVID-19 expedites that,” Haslam said.
What’s next for Pilot and trucking?
Adaptations will continue as states loosen safer-at-home restrictions.
So far, dining rooms in seven states have transitioned to a restricted seating capacity. The Pilot at Lovell Road in Knoxville, for instance, seats about 60 people in its dining room; it is now limited to 20.
Business has dipped 20-25% throughout the pandemic, Haslam said, but the company did not cut employee hours.
The weekend after Knox County and the city of Knoxville introduced the phased re-opening plan, Haslam saw more drivers on the roads. Still not a normal amount, but more.
Travel may increase this summer, meaning more customers buying gas and food at Pilot stops.
But Haslam said he’s not sure if business will return to normal in 2020.
“The health issue has been substantial, but the economic devastation and impact on families, impact on school kids, etc., has been substantial, and somehow we’ve got to figure out how to return to whatever the new normal is,” Haslam said.
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