March 15 was a day Tess McInerney won’t soon forget. That was when McInerney, director of human resources at DPV Transportation Worldwide in Everett, had to furlough nearly all of the charter bus company’s roughly 200 local employees.
The office buildings where they shuttled commuters were closing down. The Encore Boston Harbor casino, to which DPV buses hauled gamblers and employees alike, was shutting its doors. And McInerney had to let all of those drivers go — but not without a commitment to bring them all back. “When people left, we told them as soon as places reopened, we were going to recall them,” she says. “So people knew they’d have a job to come back to.”
DPV was one of many companies this spring forced into COVID-19 furloughs: letting valued employees go as business evaporated overnight, but developing ways to bring them back quickly when it resumed. For McInerney, that meant calling each person DPV furloughed, just to check in. It meant continuing to pay for their health and dental insurance plans. It also meant weekly surveys on their well-being, company-wide Zoom town halls where executives detailed the company’s outlook, and regular movie nights and virtual coffee hours where fellow drivers could shoot the breeze, just like they would at work. “I was a little bit hesitant at first. Chauffeurs aren’t always known for their tech skills. But people really got into it,” she says. “They were missing human contact.”
At Power Home Remodeling Group, a national company that installs windows, siding, and other home exterior products, temporarily shutting down was “not an easy decision,” says regional vice president Justin Angelo. That industry was deemed essential, and competitors were staying open; customers had jobs scheduled. But as the pandemic spread quickly in March, safety concerns — and the work-life realities that came with shuttered schools and day cares — forced the issue. So Power Home shut down.
That meant furloughing about 140 workers in Greater Boston, Angelo says, and more than 2,000 companywide. Since most employees relied heavily on commissions for their income, Power Home paid them $500 weekly stipends to make up for lost sales until expanded federal unemployment benefits kicked in. The company covered the full cost of health insurance and other benefits. And it organized virtual events to keep people connected. “One of the things we really pride ourselves on is our culture,” Angelo says. “We love to get together in the office, as peers, as mentors, literally being that shoulder to lean on for each other.”
When that wasn’t an option in-person, Power Home tried the next best thing: game nights. The company pitted branch offices around the Northeast against one another in Family Feud and Call of Duty tournaments. They even put on a talent show: “Power’s Got Talent.” “We had some pretty amazing people,” Angelo says. “The person who came in second was juggling flaming candles while balancing on three chairs. [First place went to a singer.] Who would’ve known these people work in the remodeling industry?”
Power did more serious meetups too, from trainings and town halls to business updates to fitness classes and mental health counseling. The company also spent a lot of time devising, and talking through, safety protocols for coming back to work, which everyone did by July. Since then — with interest rates low and many homeowners thinking about improvements — business has been going like gangbusters, and having experienced employees who stayed during the furlough has helped the company keep up. “When we came back we had really, really strong retention,” Angelo says. “It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in all this.”
Staying in touch — in the right ways — is really important to keeping furloughed workers in the fold, says Bob Kelleher, an employee engagement consultant in Burlington. Keep them on company benefits, but maybe turn off their e-mail so they don’t feel pressured to work. Be honest with people about the state of the business — don’t overpromise about return dates, for instance — but also make sure to treat them with kindness, Kelleher says. “You want them to return, and want them to WANT to return,” Kelleher wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “They, along with your employees who still have jobs, are watching you.”
W.L. French Excavating also had to shut down most of its jobs when Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville halted construction work in the early days of the pandemic. It was a chaotic time, says vice president Jessica French Goyette, trying to sort out rules that varied by municipality, and by type of job — for a time, residential construction was allowed to continue while commercial projects had to stop. The company had to sort out new safety rules for people who kept working, and take care of people who didn’t. “It’s easy to forget how crazy all that was,” Goyette says. “We didn’t know when we’d be able to turn it back on.”
To keep workers engaged, W.L. French, too, held frequent virtual meetings and events. The company conducted training and talked through safety protocols for when people returned to work. And it produced a motivational video that has been viewed thousands of times on company social media platforms. “I still watch it almost every day,” Goyette says. “It’s about how our company does what it takes, every day. That’s what we did during COVID.”
At W.L. French, the furloughs were briefer than some. Employees were largely back at work by the end of May. These days, the company is busier than ever, but closely watching to see if the pipeline of big projects that has powered Boston’s construction industry in recent years starts to dry up.
Sonny Dove is back at work, too. A chauffeur at DPV, he drives a coach bus from Londonderry, New Hampshire, to the Encore casino three days a week. There are fewer people on the bus since the casino reopened, usually just a handful on a 45-seater that ran full on Sundays before the pandemic. But they’re loyal customers, mostly regulars, he says, and no one complains about having to wear a mask.
For Dove, working is way better than waiting around. At age 71, he’s lived through recessions before, but nothing like this. The shutdown was hard, Dove says, and isolating. He appreciates everything DPV did in the months it was closed, especially the chance to catch up, just casually, with his fellow drivers at the end of Friday town halls on Zoom. But he’s glad to be on the road again. “Thank God we went back,” Dove says. “You’ve got to have some kind of responsibility in life.”
McInerney is glad too. Like the day she had to start the furloughs for all those chauffeurs, the day she ended them is another day she’ll never forget. “It was July 11, the day before Encore reopened,” she says. “Those dates will be forever ingrained in my mind.”