ROAD TRANSPORT FORUM - Do what you can to hold on to your staff

Monday, June 8, 2020

I write this with New Zealand deep into the initial fourweek lockdown period. Nobody knows how long this will last or how successful it will be. It is encouraging to see the government approach changing from one of containment to one where they are openly talking about eliminating Covid-19 here in New Zealand. By the time you read this we may know a lot more about how long elimination will take and what alert level we will need to maintain to achieve it. What, I think, is even less certain is just what the economy will look like when we come out the other side of this. Even in the best-case scenario, the reality is that we will not be going from alert level 4 immediately back to zero. In all likelihood it will be a staged process where freedom of movement and association will still be heavily restricted for many more weeks and months. This will continue to have a massive impact on New Zealand businesses, especially those that rely on people coming through their doors. Restaurants, bars and cafes are unlikely to be operating for some time, while other parts of the service and retail industries will also be heavily restricted. Tourism businesses, especially those that cater to international tourists, are likely to face an even longer period of inactivity, as border restrictions are likely to last some time.

It is inevitable that there will be significant economic pain, but how we come out of this will largely depend on just how successful we are at keeping people employed and as many businesses afloat as possible. While freight transport has been an essential service through the lockdown, once restrictions are lifted and non-essential businesses can start trading again, there will be significant pressure on trucking companies to also increase their capacity. I therefore encourage operators to use all the tools that are available to them through the Wage Subsidy Scheme and other government support programmes to help retain their staff and be in a position to increase operations when the time comes. To qualify for the Wage Subsidy Scheme, you just need to prove a 30% loss in revenue or predicted revenue over a month when compared with the same month last year, and that that decrease is due to Covid-19. The government has also set up the Business Finance Guarantee Scheme to provide short-term credit to cushion the financial distress of small and medium-sized businesses. There are extensive tax and ACC levy relief packages available as well. The government’s Covid-19 and business.govt.nz websites are the place to go to access all of these. The issue of non-essential versus essential freight remains a major problem.

The essential/non-essential distinctions are presenting significant economic viability issues for many freight companies. Trucking is only viable when running at or near capacity, and that requires a fully functional supply chain. A fully functional supply chain is only possible with the movement of both essential and non-essential goods. We have been working with government officials to get them to understand the fundamental premise that all freight needs to move, whether it is essential or non-essential, and limitations on this will have dire consequences, both for our industry and the country’s economic recovery. We also highlighted with government the significant issue that drivers have had accessing roadside services such as rest areas, food services, and toilets. I am pleased that guidelines have since been issued to have public toilets remain open on key freight routes. We are told that those running service stations have also been informed that they are permitted to open their facility and sell food to essential workers. However, this will be a choice for each service station to make. New Zealand Trucking magazine has on its website an updated nationwide list of these places.

It goes without saying, but it is absolutely vital that operators do all they can to keep themselves and their staff as safe as possible while working under lockdown conditions. This means heeding all the necessary health advice, maintaining social distancing as much as you can, washing hands thoroughly, and looking after each other’s mental health by staying in regular contact. For the men and women of our industry who are working so hard to keep food on the supermarket shelves, fuel at the gas stations and export produce going to our ports, we are hugely appreciative of your efforts. The RTF and its associations will continue to support you as much as we can, so look after one another, stay safe, and keep up the good work.