Editor’s note: This article by Patricia Kime originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a military permanent change of station, or PCS, year like no other, bringing unprecedented challenges like lockdowns and travel restrictions, increased sanitation requirements, the burden of personal protective gear and an ever-present threat of coronavirus.
Yet U.S. Transportation Command and the moving companies that carried 321,000 household goods shipments for military families earned a 96% approval rating from their customers, said Rick Marsh, Defense Personal Property Program director at U.S. Transportation Command.
The figure reflects an increase from the 93.9% approval rating in 2019 and a leap forward from 2018, a notoriously disastrous year when more than 10% of military families reported loss or damage during their moves.
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TRANSCOM has set a 95% performance approval threshold for itself in an effort to improve customer service.
"I'm really pleased ... but not willing to declare victory on the 2020 peak season because it seems like when things went wrong, they went really, really wrong," Marsh said.
Issues that popped up this year included problems with moving crews, short-staffing and miscommunication, he added.
"What I frankly won't tolerate are the ones where a customer or their family is treated with disrespect in their homes. What we can't tolerate is a customer reaching out to find information about their move and not getting an answer right away," Marsh said.
The 2020 PCS moving season was anything but normal: In March, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a stop-movement order, effectively halting nearly all moves for several months. From May 15 to June 12, just 15,302 shipments were made, compared with 86,843 during the same period in 2019 -- an 82% drop.
But shipments picked up throughout the summer as installations reopened under a phased approach, and by year's end, TRANSCOM had cleared any backlogs, conducting about 85% of the previous year's total PCS moves, according to Marsh.
"I think the services did a really good job figuring out how to operate in this environment. Industry did a really good job of figuring out how to operate this environment, and we were able to make up the volume later in the year," he said.
The lessons learned in 2020 have been reviewed and integrated into plans for 2021, which Marsh anticipates will be a "typical year" for military moves.
Still, with COVID-19 cases currently high in the U.S., TRANSCOM and the 900 moving companies it oversees will face challenges.
As of Jan. 18, just 37% of all U.S. military bases were open for unrestricted travel -- 85 of 231 installations. The number is a sharp decrease from early November, when 153 bases, or 66%, were cleared for travel and PCS moves.
To prepare for the 2021 PCS season, TRANSCOM has made a number of changes, including making permanent the health and safety measures adopted in 2020 -- a policy change that ensures that moving companies follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
TRANSCOM also plans to institute several measures to improve customer service, such as responding more quickly to claims and repairing damaged items or reimbursing for salvage more quickly.
The command also will require moving companies to respond to customers' concerns on Saturdays during peak season -- a service that Marsh said should be a "matter of business."
"If the moving company and the communication is going [in any direction], it should be going where moving crews are being proactive and updating families on the status of the shipment. Hopefully, [the Saturday service] is a non-issue," Marsh said.
TRANSCOM also plans to reinstitute a safeguard -- tamper-evident seals on crates -- that were required until December 2018 but were not mandated in 2019 or 2020.
"This is one of the things that families were wanting to see back in the program," Marsh said.
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This PCS season was to be the first managed by a private company contracted to oversee the Defense Department's household goods shipments worldwide. But the contract, worth nearly $20 billion over a decade, has been delayed by a contentious bidding process that resulted in TRANSCOM issuing a new request for proposals from interested parties, which were due to the command in December.
The contract had been awarded to a New Jersey company, American Roll On Roll Off Carrier Group, or ARC, in April and was expected to go into effect by the 2021 moving season.
The contract was withdrawn amid a flurry of bid protests, including concerns by competitors over the company's relationship with its parent company and several subsidiaries fined for price-fixing, as well as issues with the methodology under which the contract was awarded.
The new contract is expected to be awarded in the coming weeks, but TRANSCOM will be responsible for overseeing household goods and vehicle shipments at least through 2021.
Critics, including trade associations that represent moving and storage companies, have raised concerns that the arrangement will degrade the quality of military moves and have likened the potential consequences to the scandal that erupted in 2018 over poor living conditions and abysmal customer service for families living in military housing managed by private corporations.
Advocates say it also will harm many small moving companies, which will be shut out of the opportunity to work for the DoD.
"The initiative adds a lot of unnecessary risk and upheaval to the relocating military customer and the moving industry," wrote officials with the International Association of Movers in a self-published editorial in 2019.
Marsh said he believes a household goods shipping program run by a private company and overseen by TRANSCOM will improve customer service. He explained that under the current system, 900 companies move military families on a shipment by shipment basis, as needed, without an overarching contract with the DoD.
The setup, Marsh says, doesn't allow companies to forecast their business for the year, nor do they have any "real spaces to invest in a relationship with our families."
A private corporation, Marsh said, would have the capacity to improve and streamline IT, conduct standardized background checks and "transform the customer experience."
Military families, he added, would still have a DoD contact to arrange their move and provide customer service when problems occur.
"Folks here are working to improve the process, and if you're an active-duty member who had a bad experience, we hear you and we agree with you. And we're doing everything we can to improve the process," Marsh said.