Manufacturers Back on the Job as Stay Home Restrictions Ease

Hundreds of thousands of workers were back on the job Monday, or at least headed that way, as the manufacturing industry began to reopen after restrictions were lifted by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

One of the tasks at hand? Prove to the governor that manufacturers could work both safely and productively at the same time following the removal of restrictions under Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order.

Like other non-essential businesses across the state, manufacturing had largely been shut down since mid-March, when Whitmer first issued her stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Only about 4-5% of manufacturers were classified “essential” and allowed to remain open.

Until Monday. That’s when Whitmer relented, after being convinced by manufacturing, business and labor leaders that their segment of the state economy – manufacturing represents some 20% of the state’s Gross Domestic Product – could be opened.

John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturing Association, said he’s been working with Whitmer and other leaders to get the manufacturing industry open.

“We want people to know we can work together safely and productively,” Walsh said. “Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. We were able to work with (Whitmer) to show that, following OSHA and CDC guidance, we could (go back) safely.”

It’s the latest step in Whitmer’s reopening strategy, using a six-phase projection she unveiled last week. The state is currently in Phase 3 (flattening of the coronavirus curve), when the epidemic is no longer increasing and the health system’s capacity is sufficient for current needs.

She has allowed businesses such as landscapers, real estate agencies and construction workers to get back to work. Manufacturing started Monday, and the auto industry is set to resume next week.

Walsh said he and other leaders have spent the three weeks since Whitmer’s extension of the stay-home order trying to convince her team that manufacturing could reopen safely. In fact, Walsh said, the 4-5% of businesses that were deemed essential were already doing that.

The other factor, according to Walsh, was the thought Michigan could start losing out on supply-chain business. There was a lot of pressure, he said, on manufacturers who’d been deemed non-essential.

“We were able to make the point that we were going to start losing business to competitors elsewhere if we weren’t able to start back up. Those two things were the key drivers.”

Whitmer said manufacturing was allowed to resume because the people in the state “are doing their part” to combat the coronavirus.

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The number of positive cases has been declining – as of Monday Michigan had 47,552 cases and 4,584 deaths from COVID-19 – to the point the state is at its lowest percentage since the beginning of the crisis in early March.

“The aggressive actions we have taken as a state … are working because the people of Michigan are doing their part,” Whitmer said. “We’ve got to remember that continuing to stay home and stay safe is the key … so that we can re-engage sectors of our economy sooner.”

Obviously, the shutdown has been costly to Michigan companies. Walsh talked of a Livonia business that pre-COVID-19 did some $5 million in business a month. Since the shutdown, that revenue has dwindled to some $100,000.

Walsh said owners have still been paying for health insurance and some benefits, and that many employees were on unemployment until the business could get a Paycheck Protection Program loan (available to help with payroll and other expenses through the federal CARES Act), and they’ve “been able to use that instead of unemployment.”

Owners, Walsh said, have “done everything they can to survive, and they will.”

Reopening isn’t going to be a magic bullet for the state’s roughly 323,000 manufacturing employees – “It’s going to be more than this week to get comfortable. It’s going to take time,” Walsh said – and it’s happening slowly. Auto suppliers and other manufacturers will start by getting their facilities open, retraining personnel as necessary and then restarting production.

The Big 3 aren’t starting until May 18. And they’ll have to start, like everyone else, by implementing enhanced safety measures to keep their employees healthy and confident of the safe environment in auto plants around the state.

“Above everything else, our top priority has always been to do what is right for our employees,” Mike Manley, the CEO of Fiat Chrysler, said in a release Monday. “We have worked closely with the unions to establish protocols that will ensure our employees feel safe at work and that every step possible has been taken to protect them.

“We have drawn on our collective global expertise and best practices to rethink our production processes to put in place comprehensive protocols to keep our workforce safe,” he added.

Walsh said the MMA has done webinars, town halls and group phone calls to talk about what it’s going to take to restart. The MMA started providing information and suggestions “weeks ago,” Walsh said, generally using OSHA and CDC guidelines.

Because of that level of communication, he said, he believes businesses will be prepared to meet the needs – personal protective equipment and other safeguards, etc. – to safely reopen. There will be a cost, Walsh acknowledged, but perhaps not a tremendously daunting one.

It helps, he said, that the state understands some of that equipment may not be readily available at first.

“We think it’s achievable,” Walsh said. “We’re going to keep working with MIOSHA on enforcement … because that’s going to be the gray area. The implementation isn’t going to be bad. I had 20 businesses on a phone call (Tuesday), and all of the questions were reasonable questions. Nobody’s hair was on fire.”

So, what’ll be next? At her Monday coronavirus press briefing, Whitmer wouldn’t say. She did say that the 14-day period that’s been used recently “is just about right” to determine the results of loosened restrictions. “We recognize there may be instances where we move a little faster,” Whitmer said. “There may be instances where we have to move a little slower. The thing you can’t plot on a calendar is human behavior. That’s why it’s so important that everyone continues to do their part. That’s how we continue to turn this dial and take the next step into the next phase.”