Transportation Companies Can Drive Better Employee Outcomes for Other Sectors by Getting Back to Work

The business of transport—people and freight—slowed globally during the earliest months of 2020, but never halted. Transportation companies have taken a range of measures to preserve the safety of their employees—depending on different environments, such as railyards, airports and train stations. With this experience, they can lead through the recovery to showcase what has worked and drive best practice adoption in other sectors.

There’s no doubt the nation’s transportation sector has faced tough times in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The direct public health impacts have shaken both employee morale and trust in the safety of their jobs. Less directly, disruptions to global supply chains shocked operations in unprecedented ways. For instance, a reported 16 percent reduction in container volume at the Port of Los Angeles in May, coupled with a 90 percent decrease in auto part shipments year-over-year, has shocked the railroad system across the American West.

Such reductions in freight volume have spurred mass layoffs in the railroad industry. Staffing reductions also pose a reputational challenge for companies like airlines, since they have brokered an infusion of government funding with the expectation of prioritizing job preservation.

While the outlook is unpredictable at best, for the timeline of a sector-wide bounce-back, transportation companies have been at the forefront of a common goal during the past four months: ensuring the safety of the employees who have kept people and freight moving.

Such companies should lean into these experiences to drive best practice adoption of employee safety as industries attempt to spring back into full-throttle work schedules.

Transportation, whether freight or individual travel, is a high-touch job for employees in the field. Effective employee safety responses across the sector have had to revolve around: 1) rigorous testing practices and schedule flexibility for any employee who tests positive; 2) consistent, proactive communications to employees, accounting for challenges that exist with a workforce that’s highly on the move; and 3) periodic collection of data to identify any geographies or functions that need additional support from the enterprise.

Here are some concrete examples of steps already taken by some transportation companies:

  • JetBlue, in April, was the first national U.S. airline to require face masks be worn by all crew and passengers during flights. The airline’s CEO defined this as “the new flying etiquette.”
  • With its operations considered essential, BNSF carefully planned and instituted a phased approach to bringing its employees who cannot work remotely back into its workplace locations safely.
  • In addition to the revenue shortfalls imposed by reduced recreational and business travel, Alaska Airlines significantly diminished in-flight services/amenities and further limited passenger booking through digital-fencing so that employees can distance during flights more effectively.
  • As an industry, freight railroads took steps to expand health benefits, where feasible, to facilitate employee’s access to testing and telemedicine. This includes enhanced paid leave policies to allow employees the time needed to get tested and quarantine, if needed.
  • Emirates was among the first international carriers to supply employees with personal protective equipment.

Despite these measures, transportation employees have not been without their own concerns—some feel that their employers have not done enough to provide protections or that they have had to show up under risky circumstances to protect their jobs.

The onset of a global pandemic brought rapid shifts to every industry, but few had to adjust to impose novel employee safety protections while remaining operational. Hospitals and health providers obviously faced similar considerations. We often say that true leadership means bringing others along toward a common goal. As economies reopen and people get back to work en masse, it is the practices of these sectors that should translate into tried and proven methods for employee safety.