Jefferson Lines of Minneapolis has been in business for over 100 years, providing passengers with safe, affordable, and reliable transportation since 1919. It has been through two world wars, the Great Depression, and now, a global pandemic. The business has experience in overcoming obstacles and major world events, all while making sure buses remain on the road every day to provide essential transportation. A frontline transportation service, COVID‐19 still can’t stop it.
Chuck Walerius, safety & compliance manager, discussed lessons learned and precautions taken to ensure passengers got where they needed to be, and employees could support themselves and their families.
Staying Strong to Serve Others
Jefferson Lines serves many rural communities through 14 different states and is sometimes the only company that stops in these small towns. The business provides seniors, veterans, families, students, and more with transportation for everything from major life events to personal travel.
“If we weren't there, these folks wouldn't have any other means to travel” he says. “We needed to ensure there was a safe, reliable, and affordable transportation option available to those who needed it even during these unprecedented times.”
Walerius knew the Jefferson team couldn't just sit back and worry about the impact COVID‐19 was suddenly having in their world; they had to jump into action for everyone relying on them. But their determination didn’t come without difficulty.
“Complications arose literally overnight. Frequency, service, and safety all had to be reevaluated to ensure essential transportation could continue to be provided with the best interest of employee and passenger in mind. We experienced a 30% to 40% drop in passenger counts, many ticket selling locations closed doors to the public and moved to curbside boarding, inquiries increased about service and safety from passengers and employees, and not to mention we had the challenging task of locating needed PPE supplies. At one point, our office employees were sewing the masks for our drivers,” he explains.
The Trips Must Go On
From the start, getting the tools it needed for everyday operations, as well as training and education, was vital to ensure passengers, drivers, and employees felt safe. Jefferson’s IT team revamped its equipment to facilitate remote work; contactless ticket purchasing and bus‐side scanning were immediately pushed to passengers; the safety and training department implemented remote training for new and current drivers; and, most importantly, the company enhanced company‐wide health and safety measures with the Jefferson Clean Commitment.
“Jefferson Clean” is made up of three main elements established to enhance existing cleaning procedures and continue the precautions, which have allowed passengers and employees to travel comfortably and confidently.
All buses have been equipped with PlasmaAir filtration systems, which uses bipolar ionization to help significantly reduce all airborne respiratory type irritants, bacteria, and viruses. According to Walerius, Jefferson Lines’ buses now have the air quality of a hospital emergency room. These same ionizers were also incorporated in company depots and the company’s main office HVAC systems.
“With these airborne pathogens, you can’t be too careful. All these years, if someone gets the flu or a cold it’s business as usual. But you can't do that anymore; you have to take these precautions to make sure people feel safe and the chances of contacting any type of bacteria are minimized as much as possible,” he states.
The company has also instituted electrostatic sprayers to clean its buses and depots up to two times a day. These high‐tech sprayers release high‐grade EPA disinfectant that is statically charged to fully wrap around an object and cover its entire surface — including the places passengers can’t see.
Even with the COVID‐19 vaccine readily available, it doesn’t mean the virus has gone away. Walerius says the company still takes pandemic precautions very seriously. Drivers and passengers alike must wear masks wherever they might come into contact with other people, and the Jefferson Clean program continues as the new standard of clean travel.
Nevertheless, business has started to pick up and buses have opened to full capacity since their on‐board social distancing at the height of the pandemic, which reduced ridership to 30% capacity levels. Though ridership isn’t where it was in regard to pre‐pandemic levels, the company feels reasonably optimistic about the road ahead.
“I think it's due to our advertising efforts showing the steps we've taken to make sure buses are clean and riders can have confidence that they're going to get a safe ride,” Walerius says. “From taking a few runs myself, I can tell these buses are getting fuller, and hopefully, we'll get back to where we were within the next half year to a year.”
A Grim Reminder
The pandemic was a reminder of why it’s so important to put the safety of passengers and employees before anything else, because, as Walerius put it, the company “hauls the most precious cargo in the world.” Every operating decision became a personal one and reminded the team how important it is to look at best practices for responding to a crisis.
“Anyone can have a plan in place, but until you put it into play, you won’t know what truly works and what doesn’t. We've had a good chance to learn where our weaknesses lie, and it has caused us to constantly reevaluate our safety practices and procedures. Even if they declared the pandemic officially over tomorrow, our cleaning procedures will stay in place because it’s only helped improve our service,” he explains.
A New Aspect of Training
During the height of 2020 and into today, Jefferson Lines drivers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic as they continue to provide essential transportation to passengers. Drivers were provided with cleaning bags filled with all kinds of products and PPE, so if they felt the need to wipe down surfaces, they had EPA approved resources to do so. Depots also received similar supplies to help support a safe and clean environment for passengers passing through their buildings.
The COVID task force, assembled at the start of the pandemic, released an ongoing internal COVID campaign for all employees so everyone could have a firm understanding not just of PPE and CDC Guidelines, but an in‐depth knowledge of the virus itself: what it is, how it could affect people on the bus or in the workplace, what kind of masks needed to be worn by drivers and passengers and why, and so on.
“We've kept employees educated not only on the causes and effects of COVID‐19, but also the measures they can take to minimize its impact on the bus, in depots, and at our offices while they're at work. The purpose is to make sure safety is at the forefront in their minds. They also get a lot of questions from passengers, and the last thing you want to say is, ‘I don't know,’” he explains.
Because the company has drivers and agents positioned over 14 states, it's tough to bring them all together for any type of training. Therefore, Walerius has had to think of creative methods such as through zoom, emails, or text messages. He also sends weekly “E‐Driver” enewsletters and company‐wide communication, which are filled with reminders and safety tips.
“People are relaxing standards all over the place, but we want to stay on top of things. The wellbeing of our passengers and employees, and making sure they feel comfortable and confident, is of the utmost importance to us,” he says.