Peter Coleman, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, joins Amanda Del Buono to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic is challenging the manufacturing industry and its workforce.
Below is a portion of the interview. The full transcript is available here.
Amanda: So, to get started, can you just give us a general snapshot of how COVID is impacting manufacturing? Obviously, this could differ by vertical or by geographical location in the country but, what are you hearing from those that you work with?
Peter: Well, within three weeks, we've had a complete transformation of our industry that started out with, obviously, some COVID cases being identified in New York City and other areas and the regulations coming down from the state government and executive orders, which seem to change on a daily basis. The first step was to get non-essential personnel out of the front office and working from home. So, that's the new normal. The second one was addressing workplace safety issues on the production floor and making sure that we are providing proper safety operation procedures and standard operating procedures for manufacturing industry to make sure people felt safe.
Then there was the call to stop all non-essential manufacturing, which shuttered some of our facilities but then, further guidance came out on what is essential versus non-essential. Right now, we're seeing over 50% of our manufacturers operating at full capacity. Now, that's in Western New York. There's 1,500 manufacturers in Erie and Niagara County, and they're serving essential markets be it energy, medical devices, and other essential, food production, entities. So, they're operating. The best part about our environment is it's inherently social distant, usually on a production floor. We average about 400 to 500 square feet per employee in the production state. So the question is how do you operate in those low-risk areas and then address safety concerns on areas of congregation such as break rooms, restrooms, and maybe like your shipping and receiving departments where you would have interaction with the outside world.
Amanda: Okay. You know, we've seen that, kind of you just pointed out, the impact that the pandemic has had on unemployment rates and then, obviously, many people are working from home and there are some facilities trying to run leaner. In general, how are you noticing the manufacturers in your area maintaining their staff? You said that they're running at full capacity but are they still keeping people in the facility? Are people showing up? Have they had problems with anybody coming into work, things like that?
Peter: Well, again, what I would identify as engineering, accounting, project management, those functions are occurring. Again, I would call those front office staff is head home and working from home. Have there been reductions and furloughs and layoffs? Yes. We're very encouraged by the new CARE Act that came out with the payroll protection plan that's coming in. So that gives us eight weeks of payroll subsidy that's in the form of a loan that will be forgiven if we maintain and keep our work staff above 80%. So, there are some significant policies being enacted at a federal and state level to really protect our industry, so we're encouraged by that.
Other areas, just how do we address concerns in the workplace and, if you have at-risk populations inside on the floor they oftentimes will self-declare and say, "I can't work because I am at risk," or they may be caring for somebody, or an older family member may be at risk. And then the last part is, obviously, the schools being shuttered and closed, how do you take care of your children? So, I think everybody is working on plans and policies to adapt to this environment. It's been difficult. Again, it's easier for a larger, more mature company possibly with significant human resource capabilities to handle. It's really difficult on the small-medium enterprise, that family-owned business.
So, understand what manufacturing looks like. 90% of our manufacturers in this area are fewer than 50 employees and usually, family-owned or closely-held businesses. And they may not have a robust HR department and they're still functioning. Then how do they learn to navigate this new regulatory environment, this new operating environment in the best way? So, there's a lot of questions there. Everybody's trying to do the right things and making sure they're operating with an abundance of safety in mind.