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Sprinting with the Times: Saskatchewan Businesses Managing in the Brave New World

Second Barrier face shields by Sleek Signs, Regina
Second Barrier face shields by Sleek Signs, Regina

The COVID-19 pandemic—as we all know—has changed the way we live and work for the foreseeable future. Industry West caught up with some Saskatchewan businesses to see how they are coping with COVID-19 and the impact it has had on their operations.

Biomed Recovery & Disposal Ltd., Aberdeen

Biomed handles biohazardous waste disposal and management services for Saskatchewan’s hospitals, health care centres, medical clinics and more. The company had already been working on a pandemic plan for two years when the COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan, China late last year. “We had meetings with the Saskatchewan Health Authority last fall,” says Cam Willett, Biomed vice-president of sales and marketing. Little did they know how soon those plans would be necessary.

PPE at Biomed, Aberdeen

PPE at Biomed, Aberdeen

Biomed was well-prepared to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. In its normal course of business, N95 masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) are stocked and used by staff. To be cautious, the company reviewed its policies and procedures to find any gaps, and increased cleaning and hygiene. “It was actually a relatively easy adjustment,” says Willett. Today, drivers are doing twice daily temperature checks, and all staff staying home at the first sign of any illness.

The company has seen a reduction in the amount of waste they are processing, due to the cancellation of elective medical and dental procedures around the province. “Volumes are down but we know that when the health care system gets back up and running, that will change quickly,” says Willett. “We’re ready to handle whatever comes when hospitals and medical clinics are running at capacity again.” Through the pandemic thus far, Enos Willett, Biomed’s CEO, has been impressed with the communication between Biomed and health officials. “The communication we’ve had has been good,” says Willett. “That is key for us to manage whatever the health care system needs.”

During the downtime, Biomed is focused on being ready and planning for the future. The company is in the process of getting a permit to process Category A biowaste, working with their new microbiologist, Dr. Nikki McLean. “Category A covers the most dangerous diseases, such as Ebola,” says McLean. “COVID-19 is a Category B disease. Transmissible and dangerous, but not at the level of Ebola.” Biomed expertly handles all Category B and lower biohazardous waste materials and hopes to have the Category A processing permit soon.

The pandemic has also shown gaps and weaknesses that need to be addressed, particularly with global supply chains. “The shortages in PPE show how we must do better when it comes to managing vital supplies,” says McLean. The Biomed team made moves early on to secure their ability to manufacture goods. “We repatriated our molds for our sharps containers from China early this year,” says Enos Willett. Biomed set up manufacturing with a local company, and the cost is still competitive while securing supply and helping support local jobs. “There are disadvantages in the global economy, and the pandemic has shown us many,” says Cam Willett. “The more we can do to produce goods here, the better off we all are,” says Enos. “The revenue stays here, supports jobs, and builds our economy. It just makes sense to stay local where possible.”

Daybreak Mill, North Portal

Some of the Daybreak Mill team, North Portal

Some of the Daybreak Mill team, North Portal

For Daybreak Mill owner Nicole Huriet, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since COVID-19 reached Canada. Huriet grows and mills organic grain at her North Portal plant, supplying retailers and consumers with flours, cereals and other pantry staples. At first, it was inquiries about her levels of stock. By early March when the pandemic was declared, the orders picked up quickly and they were for larger than normal quantities—way larger. “The orders that came after the outbreak was declared a pandemic were for pallets of product for a single customer, which normally unheard of for us,” says Huriet. “We were even sending out pallets of grain.” This was during the wave of panic-style buying, where other goods like toilet paper and cleaning products were scooped up at retailers in mass quantities.

The orders may have gotten smaller in size as people settled into life under public health orders to stay home, but they haven’t slowed down at all for Daybreak Mill. Huriet has outsourced her phones to outside help, added processing hours to the mill, and brought on extra staff to keep up with the demand. “We’re now running the mill from 5 am to 10 pm, seven days a week,” she says. “We’re still backed up, but we hope to clear the backlog in about two weeks.” Orders are coming from across the country for products like wheat bran, cane sugar and flours of all varieties. “Even with the increase in demand, we have more than enough grain to meet the orders,” says Huriet. “Our issue is just keeping up.”

Huriet also hopes that when things to go back to “normal”, this is the beginning of increased and consistent local buying for grocery staples. “We grow so much good, quality food in Saskatchewan,” says Huriet. “It just makes sense to buy it from your friends and neighbours all the time.”

Hi Low Angus, Lumsden

Dan Howell - Hi Low Angus, Lumsden

Dan Howell – Hi Low Angus, Lumsden

Dan Howell, a third-generation family farmer near Lumsden, is experiencing an increase in demand for his purebred Angus beef. These days, inquiries are flooding in from customers about how to purchase his locally raised products.

“Right now, we’re just about done calving, finishing the harvest, and getting ready for seeding,” says Howell. “And, we’re also busy answering the phone for orders for our beef.” Howell is normally found at the Regina Farmers Market with his selection of freezer beef. “We started retailing at the farmers market about 13 years ago, and the beef has been popular,” he says. “We had noticed that ‘buy local’ started strong but has slowed over the last couple of years. But not anymore.” Unable to sell at the market now due to public health orders, Howell sets up contactless transactions at his farm or at meeting points.

He says the increase in business is directly related to the pandemic. “I’ve heard from people that they have had trouble sourcing the meat they want from their usual grocery stores. I haven’t seen it myself, but I can see that being possible,” says Howell. Like Huriet, he hopes this interest in locally grown and raised food is permanent. “We’re raising a product everyone wants, right here. Why buy anywhere else?”

Minhas Sask Distillery, Brewery and Winery, Regina

inhas Sask Hand Sanitizer Production in Regina

Minhas Sask Hand Sanitizer Production in Regina

Normally, Minhas Sask produces beers, spirits and wines at its north Regina location. However, the company changed gears quickly in March, when hand sanitizer became impossible to find due to the pandemic.

The company has hired 40 new full-time staff at the Regina facility, complete with a ‘COVID-19 Hero’ wage, to produce the desperately needed product. Now, Minhas Sask is running 24 hours a day, producing Health Canada approved hand sanitizer for donation to frontline workers at food banks, fire departments, hospices and more. As well, the Minhas hand sanitizers can be purchased at Safeway, Sobeys and IGA stores across Saskatchewan, and at the company’s Regina and Saskatoon distilleries.

“It’s been a bit of a scramble to redesign workflows, gather ingredients and pool all the packaging we could,” says Minhas Sask founder Moni Minhas. “But we are on-track to make over 250,000 bottles in a variety of formats. We’re very grateful to be able to keep people employed in our community while doing what we can to respond to this crisis.”

Sleek Signs, Regina

Second Barrier face shields by Sleek Signs, Regina

Second Barrier face shields by Sleek Signs, Regina

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Sleek Signs hard in March. The company makes billboards, vehicle wraps and much more with its large format printing services. They were forced to lay off 31 staff members when their normal business dried up and revenue dropped off. Co-owner Brad Hertz wasn’t willing to give up so easily and started contemplating the supply issues surrounding face shields that are plaguing frontline workers across the country. “Typical shields are made of three components—foam, elastic and velcro—things that are hard to come by and that I didn’t have on hand,” says Hertz. After a few days at home working on designs that would be safe, and made with something he could access, Hertz had hit on something. “Polycarbonate is durable, reusable and easily disinfected,” he says. “We created a prototype, and soon we were producing what we now call ‘Second Barrier’ face shields.”

At Sleek Signs, Hertz and his team had the equipment they needed to produce a much-needed product and access to the input—polycarbonate—that was not in short supply. They also had the expertise in design, production and shipping. Even the boxes they had on hand perfectly fit the face shields. Within days, they were shipping shields to a major utility, and an email to a friend in Massachusetts led to the City of Boston placing an order. Hertz is now rehiring staff as demand grows, and he’s happy to help the frontline with something they need so badly. “It’s a reusable product manufactured at a disposable price,” says Hertz.

In His Own Words – Jeff Shirley, Rivercity Technology Services Ltd., Saskatoon

The last public meeting Jeff Shirley attended (at Co.Labs Saskatoon)

The last public meeting Jeff Shirley attended (at Co.Labs Saskatoon)

Over the last few weeks, our staff at Rivercity Technology Services Ltd. have been working with our business IT clients on how to deal with COVID-19.  In late January—after watching China lock down 20 million people—we reviewed our ability to service our clients in a large-scale event and ensured our staff could operate remotely in a secure manner. We implemented our Emergency Services Plan in March, shifting to remote work when the government began encouraging it. Businesses have since been affected by the migration to Work from Home (WFH) and the compliance and expenses of keeping employees and customers connected.

Clients moved employees out of the office away from their work PC, to a laptop or personal device from home. The typical office desktop almost always requires the wired office network and infrastructure, so it cannot simply be taken home.  Now, many employees are using personal home devices with remote connection capabilities to their office.

This switch from office to home has identified many issues:

  • Personal devices are not secure, are running outdated software but may have work related information stored on them now.
  • The availability of normal midrange laptops—one example: we have struggled to find Microsoft Surface Pro 7s, among many other in demand models.
  • Employees are now sharing personal information like mobile phone numbers or personal emails with customers.
  • VPN bandwidth is not capable of supporting the entire office staff.
  • Employees do not have appropriate desks and chairs at home to work from.
  • Privacy of work-related information is at risk, and the work/home boundary is gone.
  • Internet bandwidth is down in many suburbs and rural areas. We are seeing employees report inconsistent connections, dropped calls, and reduced quality of service.
  • Video conferencing has been adopted, and new security issues and challenges have come with this technology.

Businesses had to figure out working from home, but also how to manage websites, Google Business and telephone systems. We have had to modify business websites to reflect new COVID-19 policies, change hours of operation, update Google My Business with new hours, and in some cases, change pricing or availability of products on e-commerce sites.

Work from Home Setup

Work from Home Setup

For our business, we have a policy now that no non-critical infrastructure changes are allowed that may precipitate an on-site visit or disruption to their IT services. We still provide on-site service for our essential services clients and have PPE if we must go during business hours while employees are there.

Not everything is negative, however. Working from home has meant no parking costs and commutes are seconds long. We’re getting more time with family, flexible schedules to take breaks, and healthier eating at home.

There are still some unknowns. Are employees covered by workers’ compensation in their house? What about insurance coverage for employee fraud if they’re not using business systems? How do you protect your company from data leaks? There are many concerns that must be addressed by business owners.

Long term, I expect some permanently adopted changes such as employees working from home more often; businesses more willing to hire remote workers; decreased leased space and office costs; less business travel; more professional grade video conferencing tools; more laptops and docking stations instead of desktops; and increased use of social distancing and hygiene in office operations. And, there will remain a need for accountability and security for working from home situations.

To me, security of WFH systems and data protection is the most important immediate factor to address. We’ve developed a remote worker package which includes professional grade monitored anti-virus, remote system management with hourly support a call away, one time Zoom video conferencing setup, and optional backups. We’re entering a new phase of business life, and our company is ready to help Saskatchewan’s businesses make the change.