The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 1:00 am

Question over which firms are 'essential'

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Some local workers still on the production line are questioning how their employers justify remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some cases, workers fear for their own health. In others, they worry about carrying home the new coronavirus to family members with compromised immunity.

But the employers point to state guidelines they say validate their decision.

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a two-week, mandatory stay-at-home order that began March 25 and could be extended. Exceptions were included for employees of “essential businesses.” Holcomb's office defined the term as including grocery stores, hardware stores and the manufacturers that supply them.

Companies that stay open were directed to do so with minimum basic operations and to provide hand sanitizer and maintain a 6-foot separation between people to enforce social distancing.

Tom Lewandowski, the Workers' Project's executive director, is speaking up for local workers afraid to speak for themselves. The nonprofit he oversees represents the unemployed and anxiously employed – those workers afraid to publicly criticize employers for fear of losing their jobs.

Lewandowski has heard from workers at Arden Industries, which makes cushions for patio furniture; CK Industries, which makes cake frosting and decorative sprinkles; and Edy's Grand Ice Cream, which makes frozen desserts.

Lewandowski wonders about public health consequences for the community if employers don't take local, state and national stay-at-home orders as seriously as he thinks they should.

“I want these employers to ask, 'Is this necessary?' not just 'Is it profitable?'” he said. “What peril are we putting those workers in for us to have a birthday cake? What I thought was essential three weeks ago isn't essential to me now.”

CK Industries didn't respond to requests for comment.

Chris Gomez, a local professional with 34 years' experience in the grocery industry, can't imagine walking store aisles and evaluating individual items.

“It's very difficult for the industry to determine what is essential and what is not,” he said during a phone interview. “With people cooped up at home, I dare say people need some indulgence.”

For some people, that could be cake or potato chips, Gomez said, adding that maintaining mostly healthy eating habits is a good idea.

Kroger spokesman Eric Halvorson agreed.

“Who makes the call?” he asked about which grocery items to declare essential. “I'm not sure how, or who would make the call.”

Kroger is concerned with the health and safety of its customers, workers and suppliers, Halvorson said. The Cincinnati-based retailer expects suppliers' employees to raise safety issues with their supervisors and those managers to make appropriate decisions – even if it means halting production and leaving a few shelves empty, he said.

“I don't think we're going to get in the way of that,” he said.

Food production aside, Lewandowski also wonders whether local landscaping and construction crews should still be active.

“Sure, they can work 6 feet apart, but they travel back and forth together,” he said. “They go to job sites in crew cars.”

And patio furniture cushions?

“No, there's no way that meets any standard of being essential for the public good,” Lewandowski said.

Liz Nunan, spokeswoman for Arden Industries, said corporate leaders reviewed Indiana officials' list of essential businesses and determined their local operation meets the criteria because it ships products to superstores and hardware stores, which are open. The facility, which is under the Central Garden & Pet umbrella, employs 86 full time.

“With the home being the focal point of many people's lives, customers are turning to items we provide to help establish their new patterns of life while sheltering at home,” she said. “We're proud to be a small source of comfort to those who are trying to navigate these uncertain times.”

But customer and employee safety remains the priority for the company, which within two weeks will reach 100,000 face masks donated to health care organizations.

“We are closely monitoring and reviewing the COVID-19 situation every day and every hour to ensure we're making business decisions that adhere to national, state and local health advisories, while also taking great measures to ensure the well-being of all employees who work in our facility,” Nunan said.

“We're working hard to continue to keep our plant fully operational to ensure our employees can continue to be paid and provided benefits during these critical times,” she continued.

Any Arden employee who is sick is encouraged to stay home, she said.

Beginning two weeks ago, facilities also revised procedures to increase distance between workers and add stepped-up daily cleaning routines that include door knobs and other frequently touched areas, Nunan said.

If any worker has a safety issue, she said, “I would encourage them to speak with their supervisor and share their concerns.”

A Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream spokeswoman addressed questions sent regarding Edy's local operation. Both brands are under the same umbrella.

“People are the heart of our business, and the health and safety of our employees, families and consumers remains our priority,” said Macarena Ivanissevich, communications manager. “We also recognize that we have a role to play in ensuring our trusted brands are on store shelves and available to bring comfort to consumers during these times of uncertainty.”

Employees are working hard to deliver products while also maintaining a safe working environment, she said.

“We are following recommendations provided by public and health officials, as well as taking extra precautionary measures in our factories that align with the FDA's social distancing guidelines, hygiene practices and health policies for food production/processing facilities,” Ivanissevich added.

Lewandowski questions whether management in some workplaces is making decisions unilaterally.

“There are things even the best management fails to see,” he said. “Workers need to be involved in health and safety.”

If two or more workers raise a health-and-safety issue, they are protected from employer retaliation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and by the National Labor Relations Act, Lewandowski said. He suggests they keep texts and emails that document their coordinated effort.

“We want to make sure people know,” he said. “This is too important not to address.”

Contact information

• Anyone with questions about safety on the job or other workplace concerns can call the Workers' Project for free, confidential advice. Guidance is available in English, Spanish and Burmese. Call 260-483-3355 day or night.

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