The spread of the highly infectious coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is starting to empty custom broker and freight forwarder offices – large and small – throughout the United States.
Fortunately for this industry, which is driven by the management of cargo data between federal agencies and other commercial interests, years of transitioning away from paper documents through information technology investments and U.S. government mandates is paying off.
"One advantage of the paperless environment is that employees can work from home," said Amy Magnus, director of customs affairs and compliance for northern border customs broker A.N. Deringer, and president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA).
"We are prepared to allow employees to work from home, if necessary," she said. "All of our customs brokers have equipment to hook up from their homes."
"As many of the documents needed to prepare customs entries are received electronically, along with our ability to process import entries electronically allows the processing to be done virtually, almost the whole process can be done remotely," Geoff Powell, president of Boston-based C.H. Powell Co. and NCBFAA chairman, told American Shipper.
"Prior to 10 years ago, all documents were received via mail or courier, thereby requiring someone to be present to receive the physical documents and process them," he added.
Industry-wide use of email and electronic data interchange (EDI), and now blockchain, has meant documents can be scanned and transmitted securely online between parties.
"However, changing individuals' habits of having a printed copy on hand is still somewhat of an obstacle that will take time to overcome," Powell said. "By having to work remotely forces an individual to move away from system printers and papers."
There are some shipping documents that must still be handled in paper form and couriered between parties, such as letters of credit and sight/time drafts.
Industry personnel are also still reliant on telephone communications to manage import and export transactions with their customers.
"The planning and scheduling of U.S. exports is taking some additional work efforts due to schedules not being reliable," said Michael Ford, vice president of government and industry affairs for BDP International in Philadelphia. "The phone becomes an important device to get your order moving."
Flexible Work Conditions
As more state governments across the country impose limits on physical proximity between people to slow the spread of COVID-19, it has caused customs brokers and forwarding managers to rapidly rethink their day-to-day office operations.
Step into any customs broker and forwarding office prior to the virus outbreak and, no matter the size, they operated in relatively the same format – open rooms with lines of employees and computer terminals working close together at their desks. This format has helped to build strong cohesion and teamwork among personnel of these often-hectic operations.
"I truly believe our entire team is essential in our operations," Gabriel Rodriguez, president of Doral, Florida-based A Customs Brokerage, told American Shipper. "Be it our reception, accounting, or customs department staff, they all play a critical role in our client services."
Like many customs brokers and forwarders throughout the country, A Customs Brokerage has instituted a voluntary remote work policy for those employees who currently wish to work from home. Rodriguez said this flexibility has benefitted staff who are now faced with home childcare due to school closures.
"We have not gone to a mandated work-from-home policy just yet, as we believe that we are still a little early in the situation," Rodriguez said. "We have fully sanitized our office and are practicing all the recommended precautionary measures."
"Some personnel may not have the proper computer hardware or internet access at home and therefore will work in the office," Powell said. "However, those who come into the office may arrive in shifts to decrease personal interaction and possible exposure."
For example, C.H. Powell Co. offices have rearranged their workspaces for those who come into the office, so that individuals are separated by at least 10 feet. "We have not set a date as to when this will end, since the situation is changing rapidly," Powell said.
"Our only concerns are those small technical glitches that may arise, but these are easily sorted out by our IT staff," Rodriguez said. "From a longer-term perspective, our only other concern is our culture of collaboration within our team. There is a slight difference in-person vs. phone, email, skype and other mediums, and we truly enjoy collaborating together daily."
The NCBFAA and myriad regional customs brokers and forwarder associations are monitoring the coronavirus impacts for their members.
Magnus said the NCBFAA "continues to be the conduit" to its members with updates from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other federal agencies involved in trade.
"We haven't really advised our members to do anything in particular, since the situation is evolving," she said. "What I can tell you is cargo is moving and our members will do what they can to continue to facilitate trade."
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