When the Going Gets Tough, Manufacturers Find a Way

When the Going Gets Tough, Manufacturers Find a Way

  • On May 4, 2020

When the Going Gets Tough, Manufacturers Find a Way: Manufacturers Traversing Tumultuous Times, Part One

By Lisa Derby Oden

It is hard to distance yourself from COVID-19 these days, and if we could social distance ourselves from it, we might not feel so tentative and lonely. But it is everywhere and consumes the news, our workplace and our families. We want to take an up-close look at manufacturers and how they are coping with these uncertain times.

John Killam, MassMEP President has a bird’s eye view of manufacturing in MA. “The good news is that most Massachusetts manufacturers have stayed active, as they are critical to Department of Defense, medical device, food and other essential supply chain production. The biggest challenge is for those not making personal protective equipment (PPE) – what is their ability to pivot to making PPE.”

John continues, “My biggest concern coming out of this, when this pandemic is over, will we forget what has happened? We have exposed a very fragile supply chain across the US. On the positive side, I believe that manufacturing will come out of this with higher respect as far as what manufacturers can do and can do into the future for the US.”

Despite many manufacturers remaining open, it can feel a bit lonely as each company navigates through this shifting landscape. Here is a snapshot view of how a few are coping.

AccuRounds, in Avon, MA, produces custom precision components for aerospace, defense, medical device, semiconductor, emerging technologies and is an essential employer. Human Resources Manager Diane Ferrera says that business has been a mixed bag, “We’ve been seeing a slowdown in aerospace. On the flip side, we are seeing quoting requests from industries we haven’t previously – likely from companies that previously ordered from China. Looking ahead, we think orders may be down in June and July. AccuRounds does have a business continuance plan, and have been updating it regularly with CDC recommendations. We have been learning a lot about ourselves through this event.”

In terms of what’s happening internally, Diane shares, “Safety of our employees is our most critical concern. We’ve been holding meetings with them 2 -3 times/week, and our executive team meets daily. AccuRounds has instituted all CDC and OSHA recommendations. Don’t come to work sick. If they do, they are sent home. If someone calls in sick, a questionnaire is completed to find out what’s going on. We’ve made our own hand sanitizer and disinfectant, increased cleaning, and stopped business travel. If a vendor needs to come in, there is a questionnaire that gets filled out. Our high school co-ops aren’t working now, though they wanted to. Senior employees with pre-existing conditions have been encouraged to take time away from work. We’ve instituted staggered shifts and hours. Our staff can work weekends to limit exposure to others if they choose. Those that can telecommute are doing so. This virus is impacting everyone, so we know how our employees are feeling. Curbing inaccurate worries is challenging, everybody knows everybody. Stories are often totally blown out of proportion. As a result, when we hear things spreading, we pull everyone together to explain, so they can see how it was blown out of proportion.”

In conclusion Diane adds, “We have applied for the PPP loan and are waiting to hear. Balancing our employees and the human element can be difficult. For example, some are thinking that they are not getting hazard pay, yet the unemployed are getting an extra $600/week to stay home and protect their family.”

Paula Martel is the HR Generalist for North Easton Machine. Located in Easton, MA, the company is a contract manufacturer that makes precision components for defense, life science, medical device, and lab automation. Because of this, they have been designated an essential employer.

Paula provides a running account of their experience to date. “Initially our turning department orders completely stopped, because of the shelter in place orders of our customers. Then we started seeing a large increase in orders for ventilator parts and lab automation equipment parts. These are large rush orders.”

Paula adds, “We did have business continuance contingency plans, but much of our reaction to COVID-19 has been on fly and in response to new CDC information as it comes out. We have developed COVID-19 specific plans.”

North Easton Machine has instituted social distancing and is using floor tiles as a way to measure distance. The cafeteria is too small for social distancing, so staff meetings are being held in the parking lot where they can stand in a large circle the appropriate distance apart. The company has been awarded a PPP loan to stabilize payroll and it also gives them peace of mind if they had to shut down.

In closing Paula shares, “It’s critical to give good information to our employees, and to help to keep them calm. There is plenty of misinformation out there – the internet is not necessarily our friend. They want to know that their concerns are being taken seriously, and want to know that the company is trying to think ahead. They want to know if we have plans – if there is a case diagnosed at our company, or they need to take care of children that are now at home. Despite these concerns, they are proud that they are making a difference. They are proud that they are in the fight.”

Travel west and find Columbia Manufacturing Inc. in Westfield, MA, that manufacturers school furniture products. Columbia Manufacturing has been working on pivoting, and is seeking essential employer designation. Ali Salehi, President and CE0, says, “We have developed 4 new products: cashier retail shields that we’ve sold as far as NC; over the bed pull trays for hospital use; tri-fold and bi-fold privacy panels for doctors and health care; and  a mobile nursing care unit that is a finalist for one of the largest MA health care systems. We should be hearing any day about the mobile nursing care units. In the meantime, we have one or two people that come in to keep boilers going, and the rest of our employees have been furloughed. We applied for PPP and have been approved. If we got essential designation it would be a matter of a couple days to be up and running. We have been keeping in touch with our furloughed employees and are instituting CDC recommendations.”

With great concern Ali adds, “I am concerned about fulfilling our existing orders. We are in jeopardy – as soon as the country opens and everyone forgets the pandemic. Customers will want their order yesterday. Getting essential designation could make a real difference.”

Back in central Massachusetts, SwissTurn/USA in Oxford chimes in. Swissturn is a modern Swiss screw machine company, and has been deemed an essential employer because it provides precision turned products to markets that include medical device and defense. MaryBeth Campbell, Human Resources Manager, provides a glimpse inside the doors. “We have applied for the PPP loan and have not yet heard and are thankful we have enough work for all our employees. We have put CDC recommendations in place: masks are required, social distancing, increased hand washing, and more. We have staggered staff hours, and if an employee has moved to a different shift they are being paid the shift differential. We use our electronic communication boards to provide reminders of these practices.”

“We’ve adjusted other practices too. It’s the time of year that we do our performance reviews, so we have been meeting outside at our picnic tables where we can maintain a social distance. Lunches and breaks have been staggered. Our president sends text messages regularly to all employees to keep communication channels open. This developed as a result of the rumors we were hearing in the beginning. When we started the staggered shifts we conducted an employee survey. We got responses that included comments like ‘It’s not the shift I want to be on but I understand the need to do this.’ We are really very fortunate because our employees are really dedicated. Throughout all this they have been extremely respectful and positive. And no one is working from home. If the hourly employees have to be here, the company decided that the administrative group would be also. The office spaces are already sufficient distance apart for this to work. And we are trying to help a little bit locally too. Our president bought lunch for everyone at local restaurant in the hopes that it would help them make their way through this as well.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of this article.