MMA leader steps up education, advocacy during COVID-19

Amid crisis, John Walsh says he is working to match 1,600 member employers with resources for survival.
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John Walsh, MMA president and CEO, said at least 300 member firms offered to retool lines or provide other services to help with the COVID-19 crisis during the first week of April. Photo by iStock

When John Walsh became president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, his vision was to build a new member-driven strategic plan and expand the association’s insurance offerings — but like leaders everywhere, he switched to damage control mode when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Walsh succeeded Chuck Hadden in January as the leader of MMA, a Lansing-based statewide manufacturing association that strives to secure “a prosperous future for Michigan manufacturers” through government relations/advocacy, education and business services.

The organization, which was established in 1902, has about 1,600 member companies ranging from small manufacturers to large corporations in the automotive, aerospace, health care, food and agriculture, and apparel industries, to name a few.

“We tilt toward automotive, because that’s a part of our legacy here in the state, but we cover every segment,” Walsh said.

He said when the COVID-19 outbreak first reached Michigan, prior to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, his organization began stepping up its education, connecting with manufacturers of all sizes to help them understand how to maintain a safe and clean atmosphere. Recommendations and outreach at the time centered around how to conduct worker health screenings, whether through the use of thermal imaging tents outside facilities or handheld oral thermometers, depending on the employer’s size and resources; how to thoroughly clean work stations multiple times a day; and how to implement social distancing and other safety measures that were being recommended to combat the spread of COVID-19.

As the virus spread and the need for drastic measures became clearer, MMA shifted to communicating with the governor about writing an executive order that would still allow critical manufacturers to continue operating.

“Thankfully, we had the opportunity to work with the Whitmer administration and exchange a variety of ideas, because there are segments of manufacturing that are essential — food for instance, you want to make sure food continues to be produced and delivered. Transportation is critical. People will still need their cars to get to the grocery store, or to pick up medicine or go to the doctor,” Walsh said. “We reached a very good understanding with the administration, and they left a fair amount of room for manufacturers to make informed decisions on whether or not they should close, balancing public safety and the need to provide services that are essential.”

After the stay-at-home order was issued, MMA then shifted its advocacy to the question of funding assistance for employers and employees at the state and federal levels, so “when we get through this, businesses can reopen,” Walsh said.

Once the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed, with $2 trillion in aid for businesses and households, Walsh said MMA shifted back to education mode, using phone calls, video and other virtual technologies to provide “as much education as possible directly and indirectly to our members about how to make their inquiries and apply for the benefits that come from the CARES package.”

This includes helping companies communicate the most current information to their employees about filing for unemployment benefits, such as asking some people to do it in the evening to ease the load on the system, for example.

In addition to continuing education and advocacy efforts, MMA had by the first week of April identified almost 300 member companies not connected to the medical industry that were nevertheless willing to help answer the demand for producing critical health care supplies.

At press time, MMA was in the process of helping to vet which member employers could be eligible to apply for and receive $10,000 to $150,000 apiece through the Pure Michigan Business Connect COVID-19 Emergency Access and Retooling Grants program announced April 1. The program is providing a total of $1 million to assist small companies that can “quickly and effectively” manufacture critical health and human service supplies.

Not everyone can retool quickly enough, but Walsh said he has been stunned by the offers of help.

“Some would write and say, ‘I understand you need help. I’m not sure if I can tool fast enough, but I have a shift I had to lay off, so I have manpower. Do you need manpower?’ or somebody might write and say, ‘I have trucks; I could help move things around.’ So, the outpouring has been fantastic,” he said.

“But we’re getting down to a list of people that actually can provide sewing capacity to make hospital gowns, and the number of folks that can convert to making both the face mask and the shield — those are coming online fairly quickly. And then the largest of our members, they’re doing it directly, and we’ve got Ford and GM and Chrysler each pursuing their own efforts on more sophisticated items like ventilators and respirators.”

Walsh said businesses should feel free to reach out to MMA with thoughts and ideas.

“We are really proud to be doing all that we can for our members and for the state. Even if it’s not a member, but they come to our attention that they might have something that the state is in need of, we’re glad to work with them,” he said.

He added a crisis like this shows what Michigan is made of, and it’s been refreshing to see the spirit of helping that has emerged.

“There’s a lot of folks cooperating,” Walsh said. “We work really closely now with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Association, and the greater Detroit and Grand Rapids chambers. There’s just a lot of conversation and cooperation going on, and it’s absolutely heartwarming.”

After the pandemic is over, Walsh said he plans to get back to work on the organization’s strategic plan — MMA plans to send out a member survey this summer to start the process — as well as beefing up group insurance benefits for small employers.

“We exist because our members need help, whether they’re a small company that just can’t get an insurance product unless they bundle with other employers through an association like ours, or small and big (employers) needing additional help with legislation and executive orders and so on,” he said. 

“My goal is to really promote the industry. It’s been healthy. It’s going to face some challenges now, but it’s been healthy after the ‘lost decade.’ And my hope is we can get it to grow.

“I’d like to have the opportunity to get young people to understand that there are really good-paying, stable, exciting jobs in the industry. It’s not the environment of yesteryear when you stood on a greasy production line and did the same job over and over again. These are largely clean environments now that require a degree of skill. It’s no longer unskilled labor. And so, I really want to promote the industry, and if there’s something that we can do better, it’s really getting the word out. Let’s remind everybody how important manufacturing has been to the state and how much more it can be moving forward.”

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