The news during the recession was filled with stories of layoffs. But two companies in the trucking industry stand out because of their innovative programs to save jobs.

Southeastern Freight Lines has never had a layoff in its 60-year history, and the regional LTL wasn't about to let the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression spoil their record. So when the economy started crumbling in the Fall of 2008, the company assembled a "Keep Our People Working Task Force," to get creative about making sure employees had enough hours.

The team did things like come up with specific plans for each service center, both in terms of employee rotations and in aggressively seeking new business. In some cases, they took business at a loss just to keep people working. They implemented an hourly rate system, in which customers can lease a tractor and driver all day for an hourly rate. This kept drivers working, although it didn't bring in a lot of money for Southeastern.

For those employees without much work to do, the carrier sought out other jobs within the company, Heaton said. The company currently has about 55 drivers working in the shops, refurbishing trailers and doing mechanic work.

The company worked hard to cut costs in every other way they could, including cutting outsourced maintenance programs and refurbishing trucks rather than buying new ones (both of which also happened to provide more work in-house for SEFL employees.)

(You can read more about SEFL's efforts in a story we did last year, "Southeastern Buckles Down to Continue No-layoff Tradition," 7/15/2009.)

Now that policy is paying off, says Mike Heaton, senior vice president of sales and marketing. They have a loyal, well-trained, experienced work force at a time when competitors are scrambling to hire people to meet the increased demand. They're still having to hire drivers -- 340 so far this year -- but Heaton says he hates to think what the number would have been if they had laid off drivers during the recession.

"The strategy was not only to make sure people were able to maintain their livelihood, but we also knew we would have trained, motivated people, that we would have a lot more capacity to work with," Heaton explained. "And we've certainly seen that come to fruition as the [freight demand] has come back, faster than any of us anticipated. We've been able to maintain our transit times and keep our claims ratio low."

In Huntsville, Alabama

Navistar's relatively new engine plant in Huntsville, Ala., which makes the new MaxxForce diesels, recently was named a finalist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center Corporate Citizenship Award for a program where it put employees to work doing charity services for the community instead of laying them off.

Instead of being laid off, employees helped build and refurbish homes for Habitat for Humanity, cleared out a two-year backlog building 79 wheelchair ramps for CASA (Care Assurance Systems for the Aging and Homebound), and sorted tons of inventory for the Salvation Army. The 43 volunteers spent 25,800 hours of community service.

"Our Employee-to-Volunteer program benefited everyone," said Chuck Sibley, plant manager, Navistar Diesel of Alabama. "Employees continued to receive their paychecks with full benefits, local residents received needed assistance, and Navistar was able to give back to the community while retaining valuable talent."

The Chamber says this award is the nation's highest honor for businesses engaging in corporate social responsibility. Navistar Diesel of Alabama is one of 20 companies nationwide to receive this distinction, and one of five finalists in the U.S. Community Service category. The winners in each category will be announced on Nov. 30 at the 2010 Corporate Citizenship Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C.

Congressman Parker Griffith, who represents Huntsville in the U.S. House of Representatives, got to witness firsthand Navistar employees at work at one of the Habitat for Humanity homes when he visited in January.

The program also generated some impressive media coverage for the company. Some examples:

"American Heart: Volunteer and Save Your Job," ABC News, March 15, 2010

"Navistar employees return to their plants after nonprofit work," Huntsville Times, April 19, 2010.

"To have management say, 'Let's put them to work in the community, let's avoid layoffs, let's do everything we can to make this recession as painless as we can make it,' I think it's just wonderful," said Congressman Griffith.