Shutting down a factory is never an easy call, but in the face of growing concerns about the coronavirus, more manufacturers are opting to go idle rather than risk spreading infection among employees and their families.
A watershed moment came March 18 when automakers in Detroit announced a complete factory shutdown in the U.S., Mexico and Canada until at least March 30, following news that workers at several auto plants had tested positive for COVID-19.
The drastic step by Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, after a weekend of coronavirus health and safety negotiations with the United Auto Workers, is likely to put pressure on other manufacturers to close unless they are producing products vital to fighting the pandemic. Honda also said it would close its North American factories.
"It makes no sense to stay open," said Arthur C. Wheaton, an automotive-industry labor expert at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He noted that auto plants typically employ thousands of workers packed closely together. "As more people are getting tested, they're finding more cases. The risk just isn't worth it."
Wheaton said automakers and many other manufacturers are likely to see reduced demand in the coming months in any case, making production less urgent.
More than 12 million U.S. workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal government is working on a series of measures to help factory workers and other hourly-wage earners who've been affected by the pandemic, including boosting unemployment benefits and paid sick leave.
Most Manufacturers Expect Disruption
In a survey of its members conducted the first week of March, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) found that 78 percent of respondents anticipated a financial impact, and 53 percent expected operations to change as a result of the coronavirus. Some had created emergency response plans that include running staggered shifts in the event of high absences.
"Already, manufacturers are grappling with disruptions to their businesses due to the COVID-19 outbreak, with many anticipating financial and operational consequences," said NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons.
Employers that choose to continue operating should take extra precautions to keep their workforces safe, NAM recommended, citing the example of Premio Foods, a New Jersey-based sausage maker with 1,000 employees.
"We've stepped up expectations about changing out protective clothing and gloves so that people cycle through them more quickly," Eric Fidoten, Premio's senior vice president of operations, told the association. "We have our employees sanitize their hands, then sanitize the glove itself—and do all this more frequently than usual. We instructed people to cover their entire head except eyes and forehead. Where we don't mandate safety glasses, we now encourage our associates to use them."
Premio also conducts audits throughout the day to check that employees are thoroughly protected and has instituted rotating breaks and lunches to reduce large gatherings at its facilities.
Manufacturers that continue to operate also should be mindful of any coronavirus-related local and state requirements, such as the new Ohio mandate to check employee temperatures every day.
When Staying Open Is a Public Service
Closing is not an option for some manufacturers, especially those that produce desperately needed supplies such as coronavirus test kits, respirators for health workers and ventilators needed to keep patients alive. These employers range from global powerhouses like 3M, which has staged hiring fairs to attract new production workers to its mask-making factory in South Dakota, to smaller operations like Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) in Iowa, which was just approved to make the "primer and probe" kits that are an essential part of coronavirus testing.
IDT, which also produced kits to test for Ebola and H1N1, plans to make 5 million coronavirus testing kits a week. Company president Trey Martin said he doesn't anticipate hiring and has standard processes in place to accelerate production in response to demand.
"We've always been able to scale up quickly," Martin said. "So the fact that we could do that in the midst of a response, for public interest, has been very rewarding for our entire team."
In Texas, Prestige Ameritech is hiring and training dozens of new employees, and it's bringing idled machines back to production to increase its ability to produce respirators for health care workers. Co-owner Mike Bowen told Wired magazine that the company is ramping up production capabilities from 250,000 masks a day to 1 million and still can't keep up with the demand. Bowen recalled that this has happened in prior outbreaks, and mask production moved back to China when the crisis was over. Trying to avoid that outcome and the prospect of laying off newly hired employees, the company is signing five-year contracts for mask production.
Meanwhile, 3M has expanded production at its mask-making facility in Aberdeen, S.D., by hiring workers, adding production lines and expanding production from five to seven days a week. It has done so in the past to deal with outbreaks of H1N1 and SARS, as well as wildfires and hurricanes.
The ramping up of production has been compared to a wartime effort—with the additional threat of a virus wiping out the workforce. "3M is closely monitoring how the spread of the virus is affecting our employees and business operations. We have developed preparedness plans to help protect the safety of employees around the world while safely continuing business operations," the company said in a statement.
So far, labor shortages have not been an issue, despite the risk. "That's the go-to spirit that we have in the U.S.," said Wheaton, the Cornell professor. "There are an awful lot of people who want to do what they can to help."