This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Despite the disruption COVID-19 caused to many Michigan manufacturers, the industry has managed to step up, push forward and adapt to the new normal. For many, the workplace looks and feels very different than before COVID-19 upended society and financial markets around the world. Six months into the global health and economic crisis, manufacturers continue to mitigate effects of the virus while expanding operations to pre-COVID-19 levels through evolving protocols and procedures.
“COVID-19 isn’t just a moment in time; it created workforce disruptions and new realities that manufacturers will be dealing with for the foreseeable future,” said John Walsh, MMA President & CEO. “Communication in and out of the workplace, the impact of new state and federal regulations, childcare and health concerns — these issues overshadow long-term planning and previously developed growth trajectories.”
Leading manufacturers, large and small, joined with legal professionals to share how they are managing the reality of manufacturing in a global pandemic and the state of Michigan’s manufacturing workforce.
Communication in the Workplace (and at Home)
With split shifts, remote work and a sizable portion of the workforce furloughed, effective communication with employees across facilities and departments is a top priority. AFC-Holcroft, the Wixom-based manufacturer of heat treat equipment, has worked to improve the frequency and effectiveness of employee communication.
“During these mostly fluid times and with a good majority of office staff working remotely most of the time, I would say one of the biggest challenges for manufacturing’s HR professionals is maintaining employee engagement,” said Rachel Piacentini, Human Resources Manager for AFC-Holcroft. “Right now, it is very difficult to bring employees together for training, meetings or open benefit enrollment. Companies need solutions that can inform their employees even from a distance.”
Managing the reality of COVID-19 has become a marathon, not a sprint, and many companies have implemented new policies for effective communication. Aludyne is a manufacturer of global lightweight solutions, employs more than 4,000 people worldwide and is based in Southfield. Through collaboration technologies like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, they’re prioritizing company-wide and facility-specific efforts to keep their team in the loop.
By clearly conveying workplace safety protocols and addressing employee anxieties about the virus, Aludyne aims to instill confidence in its COVID-19 response.
“It’s all about being flexible where we can be and staying connected so that we can address anxieties early,” said Jenifer Zbiegien, Aludyne’s Vice President of Human Resources & Marketing. “There’s a new reality and we’re all learning as we go. As we communicate with our team, we’re informing them about screening and testing protocols, allowing them to ask questions and just ease a lot of the worry. It’s also an important way to keep the ‘team’ together if you’re faced with extended periods of remote work.”
Communication and information-sharing can also keep your workforce abreast of new policies and regulations imposed at the state and federal level.
Understanding and Responding to New Federal Paid Leave Requirements
Passed by Congress at the advent of the health crisis, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) imposes new paid family and medical leave requirements on employers with fewer than 500 employees through the end of the year.
“Far and away the biggest challenges I’m hearing about are managing leave issues, tracking and addressing COVID-19 cases involving employees, and getting people who have been out of work or working remotely back on site,” said Matt Radler, an attorney with MMA Premium Associate Member Honigman LLP.
“Employees with childcare responsibilities can be eligible for protected leave under the FFCRA and, so long as there are issues with school closures, part of the workforce is potentially going to need to be absent — administering and tracking that kind of broad need for periodic absences from work is just very different than what manufacturers have had to deal with before.”
While this new federal law permits employers with fewer than 50 employees to exempt themselves, the paid leave provisions are reimbursable through a payroll tax credit, giving the smallest employers a way to offset the cost of COVID-related employee absences.
Staying Informed on Unemployment
The traditional parameters of unemployment in Michigan and across the nation remain suspended at the direction of state and federal agencies. Expanded eligibility, extended benefit duration and a boost in unemployment benefit amounts have all changed the traditional equation for employers and for displaced workers.
Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-76 remains in effect for the duration of Michigan’s declared emergency. In August, President Donald J. Trump authorized an additional $300 per week in enhanced benefits for eligible unemployment recipients, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) soon after approved of Michigan’s application for the federal funding to assist an estimated 910,000 Michiganders.
Learn more about how the latest unemployment updates are impacting your business on page 18.
Managing Workplace Safety
Manufacturers continue to be subject to strict workplace safety requirements under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s various executive orders, most recently updated in Executive Order 2020-161. Franklin Fastener is a manufacturer of clamping solutions in Redford, supplying the military, transportation, and vehicle industries. Like many small manufacturers, they are trying to stay updated on changes to safety standards but admit it hasn’t been easy.
“Because of all the new CDC guidelines, new OSHA and MIOSHA standards and everything else, it’s been challenging keeping up and there’s been a constant sense of urgency that can weigh on a business,” said Andrew Hayes, Vice President for Franklin Fastener and representing the third generation of the family-owned business. “We were considered a critical manufacturer so we never shut down. That in itself was good and bad. We weren’t facing some of the difficult workforce decisions that other companies did, but there was also no time to prepare for all the changes — we had to be ready for this in real time. It meant a lot of checking and double-checking to be sure we were doing everything the right way.”
While some employees welcome the added safety practices intended to help mitigate transmission of the virus, others resent the imposition of new requirements on an already safety-sensitive industry. For manufacturers like Aludyne, managing the concerns of employees on both ends of the spectrum is necessary.
“It comes down to masks as being a safety measure and, while we understand the discomfort and the challenges they can present, adherence to these policies is a requirement of employment like any other workplace policy,” said Zbiegien. “Whether it is the masks or social distancing or changes to the facility floor plan, every step we’re taking is meant to improve the safety and health of our employees when they are here and when they go back home.”
Today, mitigating the spread of the virus through social distancing, engineering controls and personal protective equipment requires a commitment from top-to-bottom.
“These requirements can be a compliance issue, yes, but it’s also about reducing employee concerns and instilling confidence that the workplace is a safe place and that we’re all in this together,” said Hayes. “We’ve heard good things from our team — they recognize the importance and appreciate the steps we’ve taken.”
Encouraging Continued Vigilance and Preventing Further Outside Disruptions
Employer interest in worker safety extends beyond their walls as COVID-19 exposure off-the-clock can dramatically impact operations with delays caused by self-isolation and additional sanitization.
MMA has been a leading voice in efforts to prevent further workplace and economic disruption and has vocalized the need for continued vigilance.
“Our continued vigilance is critical to the state’s economic recovery. Ensuring worker safety is a long-standing ethic in manufacturing,” said Walsh in a statewide press release on the issue. “To help keep everyone safe, we encourage everyone to practice all of the safety practices recommended by leading health experts, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and wearing masks in public places.”
Honigman’s Radler also sees additional risks for manufacturers, saying that “you are now having to think about unexpected priorities like contact tracing, asking about who employees have been in contact with, making decisions about how many people need to self-isolate. These can all have huge ramifications on your business and put you in the line of fire between proper COVID-19 response and conflict with existing regulations.”
In order to protect their business and their employees, Radler encourages manufacturers to remember that pre-COVID-19 regulations are still in effect. Even as you are being asked to inquire about symptoms and potential exposure, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other rules about medical privacy and prohibiting disability discrimination still apply. HR teams should connect with their legal and risk-mitigation teams to stay aware of how new policies could violate existing regulations.
Remaining Flexible in Uncertain Times
Many unknowns lay ahead in the coming months, including the possibility of a second COVID-19 wave, parallel influenza outbreaks and the logistics of ongoing virtual schooling.
The leadership team at Franklin Fastener is already working tirelessly to prepare for further disruption that may be caused by the pandemic.
“There’s too much that we can’t predict right now. It’s essential to incorporate flexibility into your response where possible,” said Hayes. “While we want to have everyone back in the facility, that’s just not plausible under current circumstances so it’s important to do what you can where you can.”
With no predictable timetable for resolution, Franklin Fastener, AFC-Holcroft, Aludyne and others prioritize an open mind and adapting normal workplace policies with existing employee needs.
“We relaxed our attendance policies so that if an employee does come into contact with COVID, they don’t have to fear being penalized for being careful,” explained Zbiegien. “It’s about being flexible and pro-employee. We’re all just learning about this. We want to keep our people safe and support them as much as we can.”
Manufacturers will need to continue to adapt, innovate and stay informed to overcome this crisis. MMA continues to advocate for the industry to drive the post-pandemic economic recovery. Our team is working directly with the Governor, legislative leaders, state and federal regulators and top legal professionals to provide you with clear and credible information as circumstances continue to change at a mind-boggling speed.
“While there are ongoing challenges, there are also opportunities,” said Walsh. “Our goal is to cut through the noise and empower you to do what you do best.”
For the latest COVID-19-related regulations and compliance resources, go to mimfg.org/covid19-resources and make sure you’re getting your e-mail updates from MMA for the latest news (see bottom of page 19 for details). For answers to human resource policy issues like the CARES Act and unemployment, contact MMA’s Dave Worthams at email@example.com or 517-487-8511.