Midwest factories a focal point, but many are considered essential and analysts say closing isn’t an easy process
Dave Englund is a boilerhouse foreman with American Crystal Sugar, working at the company’s Drayton, N.D., factory where millions upon millions of pounds of sugar are produced each year. It’s hard, honest work, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s grown stranger.
Englund, a local leader in the plant workers’ union, does his best to avoid others, staying in the “back corner” of the facility, where most of his job keeps him. But both for Englund and his coworkers, it’s often not enough to keep to themselves.
“On the floor, there’s a lot of jobs that can be done by yourself when you’re working, but there’s more jobs that require two or three people, and you’re literally working side by side with them,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to put the six feet (for social distancing) in there.”
For a vast number of Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has meant either working from home, working fewer hours, or no work at all. But for laborers in many factories and processing plants, the last month has been just the opposite. Either because owners hesitate to shut down a complex supply chain — or because the country is depending on an essential product — many Americans have started their work days in shared spaces, carrying on as the virus spreads outside.
Both Englund and Renae Fredrickson, a fellow union official with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, said the group is working closely with American Crystal Sugar leaders to make the workplace safer.
The sugar beet-slicing campaign is over now, and there are fewer workers at the factory. Fredrickson said face masks are encouraged at work, that disinfection crews regularly sweep through the factory, and that officials with American Crystal have been helpful and receptive to union requests.
But Englund wonders why American Crystal officials are still pushing ahead with contractor work at the Drayton facility – which brings outside workers to the plant all the time. And Fredrickson still feels apprehension about being at the plant.
“I have a husband that was being treated for cancer, and he’s still on a little bit of treatment,” she said. She’s worried about his immune system’s ability to fight a case of the coronavirus. “So I worry, well, what am I going to bring home to him?”
Employees at many facilities are concerned. In Grand Forks, workers at the LM Wind Power plant, for example, called the Grand Forks Herald with claims that the facility was not taking the pandemic seriously. In the days that followed, that plant became a regional hot spot for coronavirus cases.
American Crystal officials say ongoing construction at the Drayton facility is part of a five-year plan that was laid out well in advance of the work itself. Lisa Borgen, the company’s vice president of administration, added that those contractors are all screened with questionnaires about their recent travel, with some quarantined and others barred from entering company sites. She said the company has made a lengthy list of changes, from shifting attendance policies to canceling training events, all in an effort to keep workers safe.
“We have required the contractors to monitor temperatures, just as we are doing for our teams. We require them to follow CDC guidelines. We are keeping our teams as separate from the contractors as possible,” she said, adding that, as a food producer, the company’s work is essential. “We may not be processing beets into sugar at this time, but this is the time to perform maintenance and upgrades to prepare for the next harvest of beets. We also store, package, and ship sugar all year, and that work is also happening at this time.”
Jennifer Byers is a vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, where she’s closely involved with manufacturers’ work around the state. She pointed out that most manufacturers in the state have been deemed “essential” and are still operating. There can still be enormous disparities in how they’re faring, though.
“We have a member who’s a printer who is busy and has gotten busier, because he prints labels and boxes for many of these critical care items,” she said. “Well, there are other printers who are not in that industry who see that their business has dropped off dramatically.”
And not every manufacturer has stayed open during the crisis. Across the upper Midwest, the list of shuttered processing plants and factories is long and continues to grow — including, Smithfield Foods, JBS Pork, Prime Pork, Tyson Foods and Simplot. Notably, though, some of those places became coronavirus hot spots before they closed.
Most notable is the Sioux Falls, S.D., Smithfield plant, which had seen more than 1,000 coronavirus cases attributed to work there as of Friday. The New York Times, which has been tracking coronavirus data, has the Smithfield plant as the third largest outbreak in the country, as of Friday morning.
LM Wind Power in Grand Forks had nine employees test positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 14. Since then, 128 cases have been connected to the plant. The company, which produces blades for wind turbines, last week shut down production for at least 14 days.
North Dakota’s National Guard has conducted two rounds of mass testing in relation to the outbreak.
UND economist David Flynn pointed out that for many manufacturers, closing down isn’t so simple as an easy, yes-no decision. There are contracts for delivery, payments to be made for supplies and potential penalties for failing to make deadlines. It’s all part of a complex web of responsibilities that cannot be easily halted or resumed later.
“Your production processes don’t allow you to simply flip an ‘off’ switch, and don’t allow you to simply flip an ‘on’ switch,” Flynn said.
Manufacturers often are left to make that choice for themselves, though state governments are in some instances getting ahead of business owners. In Pennsylvania, for example, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close on March 19 — and though some businesses received waivers to reopen, those that did soon found their supply networks were shot through with COVID-19 closures.
Mark Wolfe, who owns a 60-person fabric-processing business — whose products are used to supply medical and defense sectors — told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month that he couldn’t yet reopen for precisely that reason.
"It's just that our supply chain, whether globally or within our country, is so connected,” said Arik Spencer, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber. “Manufacturers in a specific geographical location in North Dakota, they don't sit on an island. When materials weren't coming in from China, there were concerns. … Will we be able to manufacture items that will eventually be shipped elsewhere?"
But since the American response to COVID-19 surged in mid-March, that kind of unpredictable business environment has become typical, created both by the virus’ impact on consumer and worker sentiment and partly by state governments’ varying policies.
In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum ordered the closure of public-facing businesses – gyms, movie theatres, hair salons and the like – on March 19. Restaurants, bars and cafés were allowed to sell takeout and delivery, but stayed shuttered nonetheless, and the initial order has since been extended through the end of April.
As of April 20, though, North Dakota remained one of just a handful of states that did not have a statewide stay-at-home order in place, according to a national database maintained by the New York Times. Burgum has previously argued against a stay-at-home order, asking citizens to remain “North Dakota smart.” He has noted multiple times in the past several weeks that North Dakota has taken action to help limit the spread, including shutting down restaurants for in-person business, along with closing personal care businesses where close contact would happen. Schools have also been closed in the state.
“I want to be clear, for those who are suggesting we are not doing enough, to make no mistake: I will use every tool at my disposal as governor to protect the lives and safety of North Dakotans. But I am only going to use those tools if it makes sense and when it makes sense,” Burgum said Friday, April 3, during a news conference.
Burgum said during a Saturday, April 18, press conference that a stay-at-home order would not have impacted LM Wind Power, as it is listed as a critical infrastructure business by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem’s order was more lax, asking the same set of public businesses to “suspend or modify” their service to comply with CDC recommendations on March 19 (the order expires May 2). Her administration has drawn criticism for taking a too-lax approach – especially given a flare-up in cases at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls. Noem has argued that she’s seen people across the country “give up their liberties for just a little bit of security and they don’t have to do that,” she said during a Fox News interview in mid-April.
South Dakota closed schools on March 16, but has taken little other action. Noem has not ordered businesses to close, instead issuing an executive order telling people to follow CDC guidelines. She has also issued an order asking for those over 65 to stay home.
“If a leader will take too much power in a time of crisis, that is how we lose our country,” she said.
She has also argued that a shelter-in-place order would not have prevented Smithfield from happening, as it is a critical infrastructure business.
The two Republican governors’ approaches in the Dakotas are significantly different from that of Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who issued a stay-at-home order on March 27. That order has been extended until May 4. Walz has argued that this type of order is best to help limit the spread of the virus.
“We cannot rest easy. This thing can explode overnight if you don’t take the proper precautions,” Walz said during an April 8 press conference. “The move to go to social distancing, the move to go early has kept us relatively flat. ... By continuing the stay-at-home order, we buy more time.”
‘Why did it get to this point?’
Those stay-at-home orders are more common than not. According to the Times, most states have some form of order urging residents to socially distance and stay where they live. As time has worn on, that’s begun to chafe for some, leading to protests around the country demanding more permissive movement.
For Fredrickson, things seem more clear-cut.
“That’s the thing. There’s so many that I think want to think this isn’t real, that it’s just nothing, because I think they’re concerned that they’re going to be out of work, and how it’s going to affect them putting food on the table and paying their bills and everything else,” Fredrickson said. “And then there’s those of us that know that, hey, this is for real. It’s like, why didn’t we deal with it sooner? Why did it go to this point?”