COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on businesses across the world, as well as entire industries – including parking. Parking operations have been challenged with finding creative ways to solve problems, whether it be permit refunds, staff workloads, or just a lack of people parking.
We recently spoke with Kendra Violet, Director, Parking Services for University of Cincinnati, about how she and her team have been managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue reading to learn about UC Parking Services’ initial response, how they have handled permit refunds, and ways that they are coming together as a team.
What were some of the initial measures taken by the University or the State of Ohio that impacted Parking Services?
Ohio was one of the early states to take an active approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19. It was a multi-step ramp up to where we are today with the Stay at Home order.
- On March 10, the University announced that it would suspend face-to-face instruction until mid-April, using remote instruction in the interim.
- On March 13, the University announced it would go to online instruction for the remainder of the semester and that all residence halls would need to be cleared unless a student received a waiver. It also canceled any events larger than 50 people through May 31.
- On March 16, the University announced that any individuals that could remote work needed to remote work. All events were canceled.
- On March 23, Ohio implemented the Stay at Home order.
- On April 1, the University announced it would go to remote learning for summer semester. No events will be held on campus through the end of summer semester.
All of these decisions had an impact on our operations where we swiftly had to make decisions and implement changes. At each step we started talking about what the next step could be. Luckily, we had already completed a business continuity plan with the University so we had an idea of our response during a pandemic. I will say, though, that we’ve learned a lot and are keeping records of everything we are doing so we can make that business continuity plan even stronger.
What changes has UC Parking Services implemented over the last several weeks?
Wow…so many changes because information and University/Government orders are constantly evolving.
When we thought the down-time would be short-term, we focused on the refund aspect of the situation. How could we make this as easy as possible for individuals? We’ve never done electronic requests for cancellations before, so we developed a form and implemented a special refund page on our website that explained exactly what students and employees needed to do. We also posted signs at our office leading individuals to the site. Our intent was to decrease traffic coming into our office to mitigate exposure for our staff and customers. We also started planning our response if the situation escalated, which of course it did.
As the University extended the remote learning time, we knew we needed to figure out how to do mass refunds. Our students do not pay for parking through student billing, so we worked with the University Bursar and general counsel to determine if we could issue the refunds to the student account. Can you imagine trying to do over 6,000 credit card refunds? Luckily, we were able to determine the method and get the go-ahead to process it through the student account.
We also knew that we would see an increase in employees asking for refunds. We started tracking those that were returning their permit just for the down-time and those that would not be returning until fall. The University announced that it would not do payroll deductions for April or May, so we had to figure out how we would handle that situation with our Payroll office. They ended up stopping all payroll deductions, and we are tracking information to send them a start file. Our University wanted to track the lost revenue, so we have kept permits active (except for those not planning to return until fall) and we are importing a fake payroll file. We will use that information to have an offset expense in our PnL, specific to a COVID-19 general ledger (GL). We are using that same GL to account for any refunds issued during this time. For our third parties, we have kept the permits active and are only returning them if they are truly no longer on campus.
“We continue to engage our frontline staff through meetings or phone calls. We’ve specified trainings for those staff that have access to technology. We are also involving them in planning our return to operations.”
From an operational standpoint, our staff was buying up hand sanitizer even before the University announced the first remote learning directive. They were concerned about staff and our constant interactions with the public, whether at the Service Center Desk or during events. With the initial announcement, we put just a few gates up at first to help with the move-out of residential students. As it started escalating, we shut down our office, opened all of our gates, and moved to a rotation with our maintenance staff to clean the garages (two staff per day).
When the Stay at Home order was executed, we removed our maintenance staff from campus. We worked with the grounds crew from the University to remove trash from the facilities, and the police kept an eye out for anything that would need to be addressed. Within a couple of weeks, we realized that the grounds crew could not keep up with the facilities, as they were a skeleton crew themselves. So we’ve put a rotation back in with one staff member coming in two times per week to pull trash only. We also manage a retail location, and we put the gates up and implemented 30 minute only parking in order to help with the curbside pickup for the restaurants.
We continue to engage our frontline staff through meetings or phone calls. We’ve specified trainings for those staff that have access to technology. We are also involving them in planning our return to operations. We know there will be a ramp up time and that it won’t be just a switch of the light to turn everything back on. Part of this discussion is also what procedures we need to put in place to protect our staff, such as Plexiglas barriers at the front counter, PPE for field staff, etc.
Right now, we are in that strange period of not knowing what will come next. We don’t know when we will be going back to operations, so it is hard to determine next steps. For instance, summer semester permits normally go on sale April 1. However, we didn’t know what summer semester was going to look like so we already pushed that date TBD. Now, we hope at some point our gates will come back down and individuals will need to have an active permit. But since we don’t know that date, we can’t put summer semester sales out there. Fall semester usually goes on sale mid-May because of orientation. Now orientation is going to be virtual, and we honestly don’t know what fall will look like. So our discussion now is about pushing those sales to a later date. This is a time that really tests your ability to be nimble as an operation.
Are there any ways you have been able to take advantage of additional downtime?
The staff have been working diligently on updating policies and procedures and looking at new ways to do things. It is amazing when you don’t have the day-to-day operations taking up the majority of your time what you can get done. I already talked about engaging the frontline staff in some trainings and planning, but this goes for the management staff as well. There is definitely plenty to do and new things to learn!
How has T2 been able to help your operation during this time?
Being able to pull data is key during these times. As we look at reconciling our finances, being able to get data quickly is essential. I think that right now we all as operators are learning lessons on what has to happen during times of crisis. T2 can take that information to look at how changes can be made in the operating system to meet those needs on a long-term basis.
I think T2 offering trainings during this time period is also a positive thing for the community. It is a reminder that this will pass and things will go back to normal. In the meantime, why not learn a few new tricks to help out your operation?
“I think that we will come out of this stronger and more nimble as an operation. We will take lessons learned and implement changes that will benefit both our customers and our staff.”
What has been the short-term impact on your operation – positive or negative?
The negative is both short-term and long-term, which is of course the significant financial losses that will be had by the University during this period. We are constantly looking at ways to improve our operations through technology changes, and some of those projects may need to be put on hold as we work through this financial hardship.
On a positive note, we have been able to focus on items that have long been set aside. I think we are also finding more inventive ways to bond as a team. For instance, we want people to stay both physically and mentally healthy during this time, so we decided that once everything goes back to “normal” we will do a 5k as a team. This will give people the incentive to get up and moving during this stressful period. We also do a management team check-in on Thursday or Friday each week. It is a quick 30-minute call to say, “how are you doing, anything you need to bring up,” but really the focus is just on how each person is doing. We try to focus on the positive and share something new or fun that we’ve done that week while stuck at home!
How will this crisis change how you do business in the long run?
I think we will all learn how virtual meetings are actually a great alternative and time-saver! I think that we will come out of this stronger and more nimble as an operation. We will take lessons learned and implement changes that will benefit both our customers and our staff.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to other operations during this time?
Make sure to record what you are doing during this time so that you can include in your pandemic planning. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel if this would, unfortunately, happen in the future.
Not sure I have any great words of wisdom, but I would say just be kind to yourselves and exercise patience. I keep reminding myself and my staff that we are just one small piece of the bigger picture. This is a time when things are changing daily and we are all doing the best that we can, and so is everyone else.