The president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA) recently provided an industry update on the victories and challenges surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Walsh spoke to the Business Journal June 17 about the first few weeks of business-as-almost-normal in the state’s manufacturing sector.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed all Michigan manufacturers to resume full production May 11, but Walsh said it wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch.
“Those that were shut down or partially shut down had to bring their employees back, they had to literally get the line warmed up and moving again, they had to get raw material onsite and get their stamping presses ready to operate — every aspect required a startup. And then on top of that, all of the manufacturers had to train their employees on the new safety practices,” he said.
“I’m happy to say it’s gone pretty well. The reports we heard for the first couple of weeks had to do with employees and employers just getting used to the safety standards.”
In mid-June, MMA published MFG Tools for Safe & Productive Operations 3.0, an update to a handbook first compiled several weeks ago to help manufacturers overcome challenges related to the public health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19.
The latest version provides information on how to comply with the most recent executive orders surrounding safe operations, including employee screenings, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation and social distancing, as well as the challenge of training human resources departments and employees to maintain privacy standards during screenings.
“For a good one to two weeks, we were having seminars and some roundtables, people were sharing good ideas, and I’m happy to tell you the inquiries regarding prescreening have dropped to almost nothing. Employers and employees have worked it out. So, at this point, roughly a month after we started back up, things are moving along,” Walsh said.
The updated handbook also offers information on member-to-member services such as where to find PPE and sanitation supplies, how to get discounts, and places to go for accounting and legal services.
A pressing challenge that will take longer to work out than implementing safety standards is how companies can get production and revenue numbers back up to pre-COVID levels with the economy still soft, Walsh said.
“Even those companies that have begun production and they’re filling orders — and there are orders to fill from all over the world — it’s just at a lighter level. As a result, folks that maybe were running two shifts several months ago are now only running one, or they’re bringing (fewer) people back, just waiting for the economy to heat up a little bit,” Walsh said.
“There’s some concern. You’ve got people that are out of work — some are still on unemployment; that certainly helps — but the hope as the year progresses is we’ll get very close to what the production levels were earlier in the year.”
On the advocacy front, at press time, MMA was continuing to work with the National Association of Manufacturers to press for an extension of the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) deadline for declaring how the PPP aid employers received is classified, whether as forgivable or not. The initial deadline was in May, but MMA and NAM were still lobbying for an extension into July as of June 17; meanwhile employers were in limbo as to what deadline the U.S. Treasury Department would enforce.
MMA also was working at the state and federal level to argue for the easing of liability for manufacturers if the PPE they produced using shared patterns turned out to be faulty, except in cases of gross negligence, so that makers don’t have to worry about lawsuits at a time when they are trying to help solve a health crisis.
Additionally, MMA advocated with the federal and state government to activate an existing unemployment benefit called workshare that aims to make up the gap that occurs when manufacturing employees return to work with partial hours — say, a reduction of 10% — and their income falls short of what it was when they were on standard unemployment benefits plus the additional $600 through the CARES Act due to COVID-19.
“(Workshare) allows the employees to keep the $600 unemployment kick from the federal government until it ends in July,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he and his team at MMA are trying to keep long-range challenges from before COVID in mind, such as the talent gap for skilled workers, which will become an issue again when manufacturing resumes full capacity because of the industry’s need to rebrand itself.
“We’re still staying focused on trying to attract individuals to the industry, working with community colleges and other training facilities to continue their training programs and just to make sure the word is out that this is still a viable, healthy employment situation,” he said.
Walsh said overall, the COVID-19 economic recovery process is moving at a pleasing rate, but the last thing MMA would want is for hasty forward movement to cause a setback.
“We’re very happy to be back at work, to have our manufacturers producing products again and doing it safely, so we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep supporting our members, and we’re going to do it safely and carefully,” he said. “The last thing that manufacturing wants is any of their employees or citizens to get ill. I think it’s pretty safe to say none of us want to see another shutdown. We’re happy, but careful.”