Covid19: How the essential sectors are organized

Water, waste, food … Even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, these sectors cannot stop turning. Telework has been implemented everywhere, but is not enough. Besides barrier actions, how do these companies ensure the production of goods and services essential to the life of the country?

Tap water remains potable and suitable for consumption. “The treatments to stop the usual pathogens are perfectly effective against Covid-19. All of our treatment measures and filters work very well against the coronavirus,” reassures Frédéric Van Heems, Director General for Water France at Veolia.

Veolia, the French leader in water, has organized itself to ensure security and its essential missions. For all activities where the presence of employees is compulsory (drinking water plants, sanitation, network maintenance, etc.), the company has set up rotation systems to avoid gatherings in the same place. “Where 10 people were needed, there are now four or five who are turning and the others are in reserve”, explains Frédéric Van Heems. A reduced staffing system that requires prioritizing certain tasks, such as postponed maintenance or an emergency call center.

Frédéric Van Heems also highlights very low absenteeism, around 5%. Even so, the company's business continuity plan (BCP) would allow Veolia Water to provide the essentials with only 20% of its workforce. “But we are very far from it,” says the director general. “The French can count on us. It is a great pride to see how self-sacrificing our staff are.”

Same company in another sector. For Anne Le Guennec, Director General France recycling and recovery of waste at Veolia, the first priority is to ensure the maintenance of treatment centers, so that we can continue to collect waste. The disinfection has been reinforced, hydroalcoholic gel distributed, the collection teams no longer leave the depot at the same time to avoid crossing paths… For the time being, the company notes “barely 10% absenteeism”, some of which persons who have asserted a right of withdrawal. “There is fear, but they are aware of the essential nature of their profession”, welcomes Anne Le Guennec.

From 20% absenteeism, Veolia would consider modified routes, and at 40%, a relatively different system which could be based on voluntary waste collection points. But today, it is especially the typology of waste and its location that has changed with the closings of companies. Veolia notes in particular a decrease in business contracts: “We are service delivery businesses, by the ton, the crisis will be very impacting, but we will see that after, for the moment we are in crisis management”, ensures Anne Le Guennec.

Veolia is also obliged to put some of its employees on partial unemployment with the cessation of non-essential activities, such as recycling centers and certain sorting centers at the request of local authorities. “We are adapting part of our recycling activities, which are less essential in times of crisis”, specifies the director general of France.

At RTE (electricity transmission network), “our employees have the public service pegged to the body,” says a spokesperson. The teams are fully mobilized on the essentials, such as immediate line repairs. RTE was able to distribute masks and gloves it had in stock, while travel and groupings are reduced to a minimum. The company wants to reassure: “The production is sufficient, we export widely abroad at the moment”, while electricity consumption fell by 15% the first week of confinement.

Same observation at EDF, where the crisis cell was triggered in France on March 2, based on a pandemic plan created in early 2000 and updated in 2009 and 2013. All the employees necessary for the operation and protection of the sites are present on site where government instructions are followed. Prioritization of sites has been developed, deconstructions of power plants have been stopped for example. But EDF does not observe any notable absenteeism. “The notion of public service is very important for employees who are very committed to crises”. According to its pandemic plan, EDF could continue to operate safely with 25% of absentees for 12 weeks, and for two to three weeks with 40% of absenteeism.

In these times of confinement, telecom networks are of almost vital importance. At Orange, a crisis unit was set up on February 28. Since then, the business continuity plan (BCP) is in its third version. “We are constantly adapting, according to instructions, the epidemic and customer behavior,” explains Fabienne Dulac, CEO of Orange France. The vast majority of the 60,000 employees went to telework, while masks, gels and gloves were distributed to technicians who work at home or on structuring networks. Orange has protective equipment for approximately three weeks. “We have prioritized the maintenance and repair of networks, and the fiber production of key or sensitive customers: in health, local communities, the State, vital businesses, and for isolated elderly people”, details Fabienne Dulac, who emphasizes a network also essential for the education of children or simply entertainment.

Proof of the resilience of the company, after the shops are closed, no partial unemployment. The workers were able to take paid special days off, or take sick leave, and Orange is considering putting the volunteers to work as part of the PCA. Especially since some of the store employees are former retrained technicians ready to resume service in the field. Fabienne Dulac notes only around twenty withdrawal rights only: “This period requires an extreme mobilization of our teams and I want to salute their work and their commitment“. The manager added that the mechanisms proposed by the government on bonuses, country holidays … are being studied and will be discussed with the unions.

© All Rights ReservedCoronavirus: why there will be no internet crash

To feed the country, agrifood companies are also on the front line, between farmers and large retailers. In the Avril group, which produces oils and proteins, it was necessary to adapt to an exceptional peak in demand at the start of the crisis, with days that saw the consumption of products multiplied by four or five. The group produces around 25% of the eggs consumed in France, the demand for which is still 15% higher than normal on average. “With eggs it is very difficult to speed up production. Faced with the brutal peak in demand, there were some ruptures at the start”, explains Jean-Philippe Puig, CEO of the group. However, the situation stabilized with the closure of restaurants, canteens and hotels. “We had to reorganize the flows, but there is no shortage of eggs, our stocks are going up,” reassures the manager, who points out that the pork sector is working well. Almost all of the group's factories in France are running, except those dedicated to egg processing, which produced omelets for canteens, for example. At Nestlé, too, activity continues. The 22 French industrial sites produce, says the group.

Faced with the lack of gel at Avril, it is a Belgian oil and gas company of the group which mobilized to manufacture hydroalcoholic gel sent to French sites and given to hospitals for the rest. “The employees have a sense of duty, they respond present and for the moment everything is going well, we have little overall absenteeism”, welcomes the CEO. On the other hand, the situation could become tense if some people are isolated. “Absenteeism varies widely across regions and in some operational teams, if two people are missing, the team cannot rotate.” The situation could also be complicated for the transport of goods, with changing schedules and costs and certain carriers who no longer come.

Yet in transport companies too, it’s the battle, like Stef’s (50% of food in France is transported by his trucks). The deliverers usually assigned to out-of-home catering have been redeployed in e-commerce where demand has exploded and employees from support functions have been mobilized in after-sales service. In addition to government guidelines, Stef has implemented contactless unloading procedures and has eliminated hand-to-hand document delivery. And if the company highlights the commitment of its workforce, it must adapt to a high rate of absenteeism especially related to childcare (without giving a figure). She had to make massive use of overtime to ensure the daily delivery of food. Stef has already decided to pay a bonus of 300 euros per month for the duration of confinement to all workers present on operational sites. The carrier also requests public sector classification to facilitate the obtaining of masks.

Another less obvious link in the chain is that packaging companies cannot stop either. At SmurfitKappa, the four paper mills produce the paper necessary for the 48 cardboard boxes. But disruptions in the order portfolio disrupt the business. The demand of certain sectors explodes: hygiene, health, the food industry, while others collapse like the textile or the automobile. “But it is also what keeps us going,” explains Gérard Mathieu, marketing director of the firm which has absenteeism of “a few dozen percent”. Despite the effectiveness of the crisis unit, “we hardly have any visibility beyond 48 hours, it is the urgency that prevails,” summarizes the leader.


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