Amid brutal cold, metro-area employers balance customer needs with employee safety

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Posted: Monday, January 6, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:26 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

It was just before 6 a.m. Monday when the air temperature bottomed out at minus 11 degrees at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, but it would be about three more hours before the Omaha branch office of AAA auto club would feel the brunt of the cold snap.

That’s when commuters flooded the auto club with calls, pushing wait times up from 45 minutes to two hours.

AAA was one of many of local businesses challenged by extremely cold weather Monday. Retailers and restaurants closed early or altogether, citing concern for employees and customers, while the cold made it harder to deliver everything from flowers to freight. Some service providers, like AAA, responded by bringing in extra help, while others spared their employees the hassle of dealing with the low temperatures and cut back on responding to calls.

Union Pacific told customers to expect delays of up to 48 hours for traffic moving through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin because of extreme cold, drifting snow and gusting winds. The Omaha railroad said the weather slowed both main-line and switching operations.

Burlington Trailways halted 12 incoming and outgoing bus routes Sunday and at least 10 routes on Monday because extreme cold rendered some of its buses inoperable. Service is expected to resume Tuesday.

For AAA, things were quiet until 8:45 a.m., said Jeff Fogle, in charge of roadside services for the auto club’s Nebraska membership. Fogle had lined up extra help from three backup trucks from Plattsmouth and Lyons to handle quick-service requests for problems like jump-starts or tire changes.

“That allows our fleet trucks to go out and replace batteries and do things that allow our drivers to spend more time with members,” Fogle said.

Another responder, Auto 1 Towing at 6328 Grover St., was so busy with its own customers it had to deny service requests from companies like AAA.

“We have to turn them down to take care of individual accounts like repair shops,” said Kim Hobscheidt, office manager at Auto 1 Towing.

A smaller staff meant Hobscheidt had to start being selective on Sunday about which calls — and how many — to take.

“We don’t like ETAs being three or four hours out because that’s just not feasible” for motorists, she said.

Even big rigs were stranded. At subzero temperatures, diesel fuel can begin to turn gelatinous, making it difficult for the fuel to properly combust in an engine. Chemical additives can keep vehicles on the road, but there were still plenty of breakdowns around the metro area.

Walt Young, owner of Young Service at 6911 C St., said that by midday Monday his firm was already scheduling tows for Tuesday.

The weather also froze construction on projects in Council Bluffs, where Jerry Forristall is overseeing work for Peterson Contractors Inc. on Interstate 80 between 24th Street and the South Expressway. Not only are diesel-powered implements affected, but hydraulic equipment had also faltered in the extreme cold, he said.

Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises Inc. didn’t feel much pressure among its local operations, but it did close its truck terminal in Indianapolis after a storm blanketed the city with up to 13 inches of snow. The city issued an overnight travel emergency that restricted traffic to emergency vehicles only.

“You have drivers that aren’t driving, and they’re not making money if they’re not going down the road,” said Steve Phillips, senior vice president of operations for Werner. “We also get paid by the mile and customers only make money if their product gets sold.”

Meanwhile, those who stayed home encountered problems of their own.

Frozen pipes and broken-down furnaces pushed plumbing and HVAC crews beyond capacity Monday morning at Burton A/C, Heating, Plumbing and More, general manager Jeff Miller said.

It didn’t help that some of the company’s diesel-powered service trucks had problems getting started. But the company had all 41 of its trucks in service early Monday, heading first to priority customers, those that have service agreements with Burton. Seeing the frigid forecast, some employees had canceled vacation days to help meet expected demand.

Miller said it would take at least two days to work through the backlog of service calls the company had received by noon Monday.

“Sometimes people get frustrated when we ask a lot of questions,” Miller said, but the company makes sure to prioritize homes with senior citizens or small children, as well.

Big Red Rooter at 1941 S. 42nd St. was also being selective about which calls to take Monday, but for different reasons. Owner Jim Schulz said he had just three of his company’s five service trucks dispatched to customers because he told his part-time employees to stay home.

“It’s a situation where you keep your employees safe and warm,” Schulz said. “The phone has been ringing off the wall with people with frozen pipes, but there’s only so much you can do. You can’t even keep service trucks warm on a day like today.”

Another group of workers who didn’t have to show up were the people who wear the Statue of Liberty mascot costumes for Liberty Tax Service.

Diva Mejias, who owns three of the Omaha locations with her husband, said she told the mascots not to come to work Tuesday — even though one wanted to.

“I figure if the mayor can stop the garbage collection and the schools don’t want the kids out, we can’t put anybody out there,” Mejias said. The city of Omaha and garbage contractor Deffenbaugh Industries said it was unsafe for trash collectors to work on Monday and delayed collection by one day.

With not much lunch traffic anticipated, and out of concern for employees, Restaurants Inc. group director of operations John Wade closed three Omaha restaurants for lunch: the downtown Stokes location, Ryan’s Bistro and the Twisted Fork. All were scheduled to open for dinner.

“It was more out of concern for our staff,” Wade said. “A lot of them take the bus, or some of them walk to work or may not have the most reliable transportation. We didn’t want to put them in a bad situation.”

Saying it was also too cold for babies to be outside, Justin Quick closed the Top to Bottom Baby Boutique he owns with his wife at 132nd Street and West Center Road. Many of the store’s customers bring their babies along when shopping there.

The shop offers curbside pickup, so customers can wait in their cars, but Quick said it’s even too cold for that.

“It’s just not even safe to have the employees out in the cold,” he said. He said the online store was still open for business, but he was at home playing with his children and cleaning the house.

It was also too cold for flowers to be outside, but that didn’t stop the orders from coming in at Dundee Florist.

“You have to double- or triple-wrap everything and just hope everything doesn’t freeze,” employee Ron Bruner said. “Our poor little delivery driver, she’s frozen.”

Nebraska Crossing Outlets planned to close at 5 p.m. Monday, four hours early. The mall was busy over the weekend, and there were even people shopping on Monday morning. But mall officials and stores decided it wasn’t worth it to be open into the evening.

“Once the sun goes down, most people are not going to want to be out,” mall developer Rod Yates said.

“We just wanted the stores to be safe and the shoppers to kind of stay in today from the inclement weather,” marketing director Jenni Mitten said.

Whole Foods opened late and closed early, by a total of four hours. “Hunker down and keep warm,” the store advised on Twitter. A. Cavallo Violins at Countryside Village offered what it called a “frigid special,” with discounts on instruments, cases and bows as long as school remains called off.

Ted and Wally’s Old Market ice cream parlor closed early Sunday night, but on Monday it enticed customers by giving away free hot chocolate — made with steamed milk and whipped cream — to anyone who came in.

Employee Priscilla Morales was at the shop Monday morning, after her car started on the third try, making chocolate and vanilla ice cream along with several specialty flavors. She said most winters are comparatively slow in the ice cream business. But this winter, the ice cream business is booming since the Hyatt Place hotel opened across the street.

“Usually we get to sit down, drink coffee and play Scrabble,” Morales said.

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