Auto Service World
Feature   September 27, 2021   by Adam Malik

Staying safe

Pandemic-related restrictions have loosened and vaccination rates are increasing. But COVID case numbers are increasing as experts confirm we’re in a fourth wave. Here’s what jobbers have been doing to keep staff and customers safe


ALMOST TWO-THIRDS of Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses are planning to mandate or have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, according to a study from business advisory firm KPMG Canada.

Norm Keith, a partner at KPMG Law’s employment and labour law department, noted that the “poll found a wide consensus among employers that vaccination is the most effective way to protect workers and customers and key to avoiding a new wave of infections and lockdowns.”

But that won’t be a process many jobbers of Canada’s automotive aftermarket will likely follow. Jobber News reached out to more than a half-dozen jobbers and distributors big and small across the country to gauge how they were approaching vaccination and to get a sense of the measures they were taking to protect staff and customers.

A few responded to the request for comment. None have implemented any policies on requiring vaccinations for staff, and it’s unlikely they will.

“Businesses are grappling with how to navigate the issue of mandatory vaccination and determine whether or not they are legally permitted to require their employees and, in some cases, their customers, to provide proof of vaccination,” Keith said in a statement about KPMG’s findings.

That appears to be the challenge for jobbers — navigating how to have such a policy in place. Because automotive repair is an essential service, any government mandate for a vaccination passport or negative test result requirement to gain entry to a business likely wouldn’t apply.

At Vast-Auto Distribution, they haven’t closed the door to implementing a vaccination policy for staff. But Tony Del Vasto, the company’s vice president of marketing and corporate development, believed it’s not likely to happen.

“To be honest, I would be very surprised if we came up with a policy that says, ‘Thou shalt vaccinate,’” he told Jobber News. “That’s a pretty hard stance to take as an employer.”

People have their beliefs, concerns or medical reasons when it comes to vaccinations, all of which make such a decision complicated, he further explained.

“A lot of people feel strongly one way or the other,” Del Vasto said. “You don’t want to put your employees in a position where they necessarily feel like they’re compromising their values and feel forced to make a hard decision.”

At UAP, the parent company of the NAPA brand, leadership decided to not require vaccination among staff. However, they’re ensuring that staff are educated on the benefits of vaccination so that they have the best information if they choose to get vaccinated.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we think we did a pretty good job in terms of communication,” said Patrick Girouard, national health and safety at UAP. “We put out two safety messages [to our employees]. The first one was in April to say, ‘Vaccination is the key element to make sure that we will be able to protect ourselves and go to the next level in terms of protection.’”

The communications outlined the benefits of the vaccine, what the side effects are, what studies have found about it and the virus, as well as credible information about COVID-19.

“Instead of creating a corporate policy, we took the approach

that we’re going do some direct, point form, easy to understand communication about vaccination,” Girouard told Jobber News.

It was important that the corporate message didn’t tell employees what they had to do. “We are making sure to indicate that this is your right to choose but make sure to grab information from the good websites, like your provincial health website. You got to have the right information to make the best decision.”

And that has oftentimes become the challenge: Finding good quality information. “It’s easy to be lost with all the information that we’re receiving — false, good, right, wrong,” Girouard said.

“The vibe coming from our 300-plus stores and distribution centres in Canada was pretty good,” he added in response to a question about how staff responded to the messaging. “And the people in our DCs, they get to do remote work like me. They have a relationship with the customer, with their colleagues — that is important. They need to be safe.”

For Zara Wishloff, president and chief executive officer at Alberta-based Automotive Parts Distributors (APD), he too confirmed that there is no vaccination policy at his company, nor is one forthcoming.

Instead, he is following the directives of local public health units. While the Alberta government did away with its mask mandate, the province announced in mid-September that it would reinstate pandemic safety measures and restrictions. Edmonton has already reinstated a mandatory mask policy. In Calgary, masks became a municipal electoral issue with mayoral and council hopefuls calling for a mask bylaw in indoor public spaces in the city.

But, like Girouard, Wishloff expressed concern around messaging while at the same time feeling for those who haven’t had two shots of a vaccine. “While I am personally vaccinated, I have empathy for those who do not wish to [do the same],” he told Jobber News. “And I find some of the inconsistent messaging throughout this pandemic frustrating.”

Inconsistent messaging and a patchwork of rules across the country is part of the reason why UAP didn’t implement a one-rule-for-all. Its NAPA brand includes its parts stores and automotive repair centres throughout Canada. A national presence creates a tricky set of circumstances. Because rules and situations differ from province to province, having one set of rules for everyone would be tough to put together effectively.

“When we’re taking a look at our business nationally, we need to make sure that we’re making the right decision and taking the right approach always in a balanced mode. What do we need to do at the head office; what is our safety culture; what do we need to do well during this rough time with the pandemic?” Girouard said in an interview.

“And not all of the provinces are on the same page. When I’m looking at the Maritimes region, there are no cases there [relative when compared to other areas in Canada]. So [we need to take a different] approach when we’re looking in Quebec and Ontario. The mindset in the western regions is different. We need to always make sure that our approach is balanced.”

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Safety measures

Jobbers have been doing what they can to ensure staff get good and proper messaging about staying safe.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we were fortunate that we were always [planning] in advance — ahead of the parade

— in our approach. A private company like us, we’re very agile,” Girouard said.

By that, he meant the company could pivot and respond to changing circumstances without too much discussion. “Just to give you an example, the pandemic started in March 2020. When it was time to discuss implementing the mask policy, I think we had done that in May 2020.”

Because auto repair is an essential service, there was no time to waste in ensuring safety, he added. “It was important to protect us and be able to continue our operations because we’re an essential business. It was very important to say, ‘We will continue to perform our activities as an essential company, but with the right protocols for our employees and our customers.’”

Vast-Auto sent out weekly messages to its staff about how it was responding to risks, Del Vasto said.

“It was mostly just stuff that we were hearing from public policy officials in terms of what to do and what not to do and how to stay safe,” he said.

Messaging has slowed down, partly because there has been so much thrown at staff over the last 18 months. As new info becomes available, the company shares it with staff, Del Vasto said in an interview. Or they will send reminders about what is expected to keep workplaces safe.

“It’s just more of a reinforcement of stuff that they already know,” he explained. “Just kind of retelling the same story but trying to keep it in theforefront of everybody’s mind so that everyone’s vigilant. Now case counts are going up, so be extra careful and all that stuff.”

One strategy UAP took was to speak with managers at its stores to see where there may be vulnerabilities.

“They would say the dispatcher is a key section of the store because the drivers are always coming in and out, they’re gathering and we need to pay attention to social distancing,” Girouard said. “They would tell us the cafeteria is where we need to pay attention; the waiting area for customers. So we made sure that we’re building our safety protocol with the high-risk areas in mind. Because those areas could spread the virus and create an outbreak.”

Like UAP and Vast-Auto, APD installed Plexiglass to create barriers between staff and employees, ensured sanitizing of surfaces and implemented mandatory temperature checks, Wishloff said.

“We adapted to client requests — drop off parts remotely if they require, mask if requested, etc.,” he added.

At Vast-Auto, staff were asked to sign a document to say they would agree to respect the new rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Well, it was just a formalization of people’s commitment,” Del Vasto explained. “When you ask somebody to sign a document, they take it more seriously than just nodding their heads.”

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Mask policy

As noted, masking policies differ from province to province. That creates a challenge when it comes to internal policies.

If a jobber had a masking policy but the local health authority didn’t mandate masks in indoor settings, what’s a jobber to do? Do they follow local bylaws or stick to what they feel is best as staff are regularly in contact with the general public?

“I think it’s a bit of both. I think it’s public policy — what the government is saying from a health perspective — and then it’s also just common sense as to what makes sense for your

business,” Del Vasto observed. “If you have a lot of interaction with customers and with staff-on-staff, then you have to take that into account. So I think it’s a bit of both.”

UAP is continuing with their mask policy.

“This is a tough situation because we’re in the fourth wave and people are tired,” Girouard pointed out. “I think the health authorities in some provinces are not sending a good message to support us to continue to battle. This is where the message is tougher to adjust.”

In Canada, more than three-quarters of eligible Canadians have received both doses of a vaccine. However, that number drops to two-thirds when accounting for the entire population.

While those may be encouraging numbers, it doesn’t mean everyone has been protected. So that means ensuring the right prevention measures stay in place, Girouard said.

“The most important thing is to make sure that we continue to monitor symptoms. If we think that somebody is having some symptoms, we are asking the employee to go into isolation to get tested,” he said in an interview.

“Vaccination is providing a good level of protection but still the new variant is here and there will be another one that will knock on the door,” Girouard added. “So this is not an easy situation, but our operations continue to be very fluid.”

Supporting staff

In these times, staff need more support as they work from home, have a partner who is doing so or have children schooling from home. Even with kids returning to school across the country, it can be expected that education facilities and daycares will have strict policies over showing up with symptoms of the virus.

In mid-August, a daycare in Vaughn, Ontario, saw 16 children test positive for COVID-19 after a child was brought there with symptoms. The parents were fined.

“We have been flexible on time for staff, whether its time off, children’s situations, testing or vaccine appointments,” Wishloff said.

“If [staff] have a situation with a child or if they have a personal situation, we give them the time they need to address that,” Del Vasto said. “And then we trust the fact that they will still accomplish their tasks for the week. There’s a big trust factor there. So it’s a two-way street — the employee gives us their time and we give them our trust. All in all, that usually works out in the end.”

In the offices of jobbers, those who can work remotely have done so, though some have been coming back to the office a couple of days a week.

“We have a new policy called ‘UAP Lifestyle.’ It’s a good policy for working remotely — two days working at the office, three days working remotely for those who can. In some departments, it can be different,” Girouard said. “This is an approach of flexibility with our employees and adjusting what good we can do for them to avoid being stuck in the traffic and have flexibility.”

Keeping company culture strong is important for Vast-Auto. “Unfortunately, it’s a lot of exactly what we’re doing now —

it’s virtual,” Del Vasto said over a video call. “That’s the next best thing to being face-to-face. When people are in the office those couple of days a week, hopefully, they can keep up the connections with their co-workers and keep [the company culture] going that way.”

Nevertheless, these are difficult times for jobbers.

“I’ll say is It’s a very tricky time as an employer to know what to do in every circumstance,” Del Vasto said. “When you have a lot of employees, they’re all different, they all think differently and they all act differently. So you have to somehow develop policies that cover all of them as individuals.”

It’s all about making sure the company does the right thing, Girouard said. “Communication, repeating the same message, keeping our employees engaged, being balanced is, for me, very important.”

All of this is on top of the extra challenges COVID-19 has brought jobbers.

“[The pandemic] has caused bigger issues on the supply and inflation side that we are dealing with running our business,” Wishloff reported. “A lot of energy has been put in by our team to source multiple lines from multiple vendors to be able to service our clients’ needs