Mike Collazo, head of security at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, reminds everyone to mask up. ( Courtesy Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market )

The coronavirus has thrown new challenges at Philadelphia produce shippers and wholesalers as they manage customer and employee relationships.

Several wholesalers have customers who can’t pay their bills to them, and companies have to decide whether to cut them off or give them leniency in some form, said Mark Levin, owner of M. Levin Inc. at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.

Longstanding relationships and goodwill play a large part in these decisions.

“You have to take in consideration how long you’ve been doing business with your customers, and if they can pay you, if they might go out of business,” Levin said. 

“It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is; we’ve picked our battles carefully. Our customers may be slow, but they’ve continued to pay a little bit at a time. We’ve given them a lot of slack.”

Nardella Inc. is also fielding retail customers who say they need a little more time to pay back an invoice, said Richard “RJ” Durante, salesman and food safety director.

“Absolutely. We’re all struggling here,” he said. 

“We have to help each other, because in the end, if you close, that’s a hit on us too. I think more people need to realize that.”

Labor


Wholesalers and distributors may not have to handle complicated new H-2A farmworker health and safety challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic like growers do, but they have their own labor issues.

Absenteeism is cropping up at unprecedented levels in John Vena Inc.’s 100-year-old history as employees juggle childcare, protecting the health of family members and other COVID-19-related challenges, said Emily Kohlhas, marketing director.

Government support has helped the company with those absences, but the company has still been short-staffed for months.

“Burnout is a real concern. Attempts to hire have been a struggle,” Kohlhas said, mentioning the “extremely” limited labor pool for experienced frontline warehouse staff. 

She connects the lack of available labor to the benefits people are receiving at this time to survive the crisis. Kohlhas said she hopes some kind of positive shift arrives soon.

Market safety


“On the whole, I think we’ve done pretty well through this: No major outbreaks, kept the facility running and altered hours and the way we’re working internally,” said market general manager Mark Smith.

“Safety first” is a mantra that the market has embodied.

The market terminal’s website has a pop-up announcing reduced hours open to the public so crews can do extra sanitizing and tells visitors that masks are required.

“You’re not allowed in without masks. I don’t care who they are. I don’t care who they think they are. This is how it’s going to be done,” said Durante, a former medical professional. 

“I don’t mind being the bad guy to some, to the people who think this is a game, that this is a joke, because it’s not. I’ll be the first to say that the safety of my other customers, the safety of my employees, and the safety of my family when I get home, of not bringing this with me, is above everything else.”

As the state loosens its rules, the market will be more flexible. If the virus resurges and the state gets stricter, the market will respond in kind, Smith said.

The market hired more staff for security and janitorial duties to step up cleaning and sanitizing standards even higher and ensure guidelines are followed according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. 

 

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