A worker disinfects machinery at the start of a shift at Green Circuits in San Jose, California, the US, in this April 2 2020 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/STEPHEN LAM
A worker disinfects machinery at the start of a shift at Green Circuits in San Jose, California, the US, in this April 2 2020 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/STEPHEN LAM

Delaware — On April 2, workers at a small plastics factory owned by Charter NEX US in Delaware, Ohio, were brought into the human resources office in pairs and informed that a maintenance worker was likely infected with Covid-19. “They sent the maintenance guy home but no-one else,” someone posted on a local Facebook group as the situation unfolded. “They are in here cleaning this place right now. [Two] people all in white safety suits cleaning all while we are running production.”

Interviews with two production line employees backed up the anonymous post, and the company confirmed it; eventually a total of five employees were sent home to quarantine for two weeks with full pay. Charter NEX’s management said the cleaning crew disinfected the entire facility, but workers said that sanitisation stopped at the break room and locker area, skipping the machines used in producing plastic.

Two weeks later, employees are still arriving for their regular shifts, even as many others in Ohio are sheltering at home. Charter NEX’s Delaware plastic plant is one of thousands of US businesses that have been deemed “essential” and allowed to continue functioning.

Some are obvious: hospitals, grocery stores, and logistics companies are all key to keeping people healthy and fed. But single-use plastic manufacturing, until recently considered a scourge on our communities and our environment, has also frequently been included in that group given the ubiquity of plastic in hospital supplies and food wrappers.

The rules on what count as essential vary from state to state, as do the protections employers are obligated to provide. Much attention has been paid to the working conditions of grocery clerks, doctors, nurses, and delivery workers, but so far little has been paid to factory employees in the US.

Vague guidelines

The vagueness in state guidelines and the whiplash in public opinion have all made workers in the Delaware Charter NEX factory wonder why they’re being asked to put themselves and their families’ health at risk by continuing to show up to work.

As the coronavirus began spreading across the US, plastic industry groups moved quickly to assert their importance. “From medical supplies to food packaging, plastics are essential in the effort to stop the spread of this virus,” said a statement from industry association Plastics.

Demand has also gone up as stores have reversed plastic bag bans and restaurant chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have temporarily stopped allowing reusable mugs in their stores. Nonstore sales, such as those from online outlets, increased 12.1% in March compared to a year earlier even as the rest of retail tanked, which indicates a greater need for plastic shipping containers, as well.

Ohio, which issued its shelter at home order in late March, created broad areas of exclusion for companies that support critical supply chain functions, and Ohio governor Mike DeWine left it to the companies’ discretion to decide whether they fell into one of them.

Supply chain

Charter NEX CEO Kathy Bolhous said that everything produced at the Ohio plant falls into that category, including wraps for food and packaging for disinfectants. “We are absolutely critical to the supply chain,” she said.

But the workers — who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal — said that as recently as last week the factory was still fulfilling contracts to pool-chemical wholesalers.

Even in the best of times, working the manufacturing line at a Charter NEX’s facility is demanding. A relatively small plant, it divides workers into four 12-hour shifts of roughly 15 people each; two shifts alternate days and two alternate nights, allowing the production line to run around the clock.

Brishen Rogers, a labour expert at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, said that defining workplace safety amid the Covid-19 crisis has been a challenge across the country, particularly in places that lack unions. Technically, workers have the right under the law to not go to a workplace that is inherently unsafe. But that law is rarely enforced.

“It means that workers face a terrible decision of going to work or perhaps not getting paid,” Rogers said. “You are seeing it across the economy, from grocery store workers to Amazon employees.”

After Covid-19 appeared in Ohio but before the state’s stay-at-home order, the management of the Charter NEX plant had a town-hall meeting to explain that operations weren’t stopping. All the factory’s employees filed into a second-floor room. “There was no effort at social distancing,” one worker said.

Some employees say communication from management was minimal. “There would be notices on the board near the time clock,” one of the employees said, “but that was pretty much it. That’s how we learnt we were going to continue after the shelter in place order.”

“There was literally not a word from management after the governor’s order,” another said. “It was bizarre.”

Bolhous disputes that, pointing to regular e-mail messages to employees. She shared several notes from Charter NEX  employees praising the company for its compassionate response. “We have taken extreme precautions to keep our employees safe,” she said. “Only one has been presumed positive since the epidemic began, which I think proves we are doing a good job.” (Some workers on the manufacturing line said they don’t have company e-mail accounts.)

For weeks, employees across the four shifts continued their usual practice of sharing protective gloves. Bolhous doesn’t dispute this, but also doesn’t see it as a problem. “There are common tools,” she said. “But it’s like doorknobs or a kitchen counter or any commonly shared object. You have the responsibility to protect yourself by using hand sanitiser or washing your hands.” 

Workers also reported being given mandatory overtime shifts, which meant workers were coming into contact with one another more often and with colleagues they would normally not see. Bolhous acknowledged this to be true. “Look, that happened but not very often,” she said.

“In situations like this,” Bolhous said, “people are scared.” That includes management. “I have to balance what would be ideal for one employee with the need to keep plants running because we are part of critical infrastructure.”

In a later e-mail, the CEO said the maintenance employee wasn’t able to get a test and therefore might not, in fact, have had the virus. “One of the challenges that many CEOs like myself are dealing with is a complete lack of testing for our employees,” she wrote.

One worker said he called the local health department and was told that nearly every business in the town of Delaware that had remained open had at least one employee who’d called to complain. He said he was told that in time, the company would get better. And, he said, last week the company started giving everyone face masks. A manager from Wisconsin also came down to make sure that social-distancing measures were being enforced.

“I’ll give them credit for this,” said one employee. “They are listening to us now.”

Bloomberg