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Greenville Business Magazine

The New Normal

Sep 08, 2020 12:10PM ● By David Dykes

By John C. Stevenson

As cooler mornings start to prevail across the Palmetto State, it might seem like the seasons are the only things that are immune to the effects of Covid-19. Some businesses are struggling to successfully reopen, while others have been shuttered, victims of a virus that has had a profound effect around the globe.

Schools at all levels are also struggling with what the 2020-21 school year will look like. Will instruction be face-to-face? How will parents cope with their children’s remote learning needs, and balance that against their own needs to return to the workplace?

When and if employees are able to return to their jobs, what will those jobs look like? Will cubicles still be a popular option for the socially distant office?

The answers, of course, are a puzzle, with new pieces falling into place every day. Here’s how things are currently shaping up across South Carolina and how some business leaders think things will go in the coming weeks and months.

Getting Back to Business

BMW is arguably one of the most-recognizable brands of any kind associated with South Carolina. The manufacturing plant in Greer employees roughly 11,000 people in a wide range of jobs, from production line to executive suite. The plant was hit hard by Covid-19, but has rebounded, according to Sky Foster, department manager, BMW corporate communications.

“The Covid-19 pandemic affected BMW Manufacturing as the plant experienced a five-week production interruption,” Foster said in reply to emailed questions. “BMW’s strategy for returning to production was a phased approach.”

According to a June 18 press release from the manufacturer, the plant at that time had 14 “active cases” of COVID-19 at the Spartanburg plant. According to the release, none of the cases were related to each other, and the affected employees had been placed in quarantine.

Foster said BMW officials implemented “a variety of deep cleaning and safety measures” before resuming limited production; the plant has now successfully returned all shifts to work and is up to full production volume.

“The health and safety of all BMW associates has been our top priority,” Foster explained. “The company continues to clean and sanitize workstations in all technologies and has remodeled layouts to enhance social distancing.”

Other measures being taken at the plant include temperature self-checks by employees, modified seating for cafeteria and office areas, staggered lunch schedules, expanded cleaning practices, and face masks for employees whose jobs make it impossible to observe social distancing.

In the Lowcountry, Boeing South Carolina has taken similar steps, according to Libba Holland, who is part of the company’s South Carolina communications team. Holland said that both visitors and employees are required to wear face coverings while at the Boeing facility.

“We also encourage employees to perform a daily self-well-being check before coming to work and to stay home if ill,” Holland said. “Additionally, those who are able to telecommute continue to do so.”

To help Boeing employees stay healthy, the company “packaged and shipped more than 129,000 care kits to employees across the company – consisting of two face coverings and one personal oral digital thermometer,” Holland said.

Working from home has also helped many Palmetto State businesses survive safely during the worst of the pandemic. According to Craig Haydamack, chief human resources officer for Milliken & Company in Spartanburg, the textile giant has had success with employees working from home when possible.

“We have about 700 associates who can work from home, and we activated work-from-home procedures back in March with great effect,” Haydamack said via email. “While we appreciate and value the unity on-site work fosters, we are heartened to see [that] our ability to serve customers and suppliers did not suffer. We have, however, recognized the need to increase engagement among a physically separated workforce.”

Looking ahead, Milliken’s leadership hopes to return its workforce to their jobs in stages, according to Jeff Price, executive vice president, operations.

Price noted, however, that flexibility is required to cope with the myriad unexpected issues caused by the coronavirus.

“Much of what we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we need to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice – whether it is a pivot in our supply line, a pivot in our product line, or a pivot in how we are managing and protecting our associates,” Price said. “We fully expect that our policies will be reviewed and refined throughout the fall to ensure Milliken is playing its part. All of these policies are fluid and dictated by the local environment in which our facilities are located.”

Throughout it all, Haydamack said, Milliken employees have worked to adapt to the changes in the workplace.

“We appreciate the hard work and flexibility of our associates,” he said. “They have continued to maintain our safety and operational performance while quickly adapting to all of these changes. Their dedication, creativity and positive attitudes are an inspiration to us all.”

Foodservice “dip” can’t stop Duke’s

C.F. Sauer employs 350 workers at the Mauldin plant that produces Duke’s Mayonnaise, the homegrown regional favorite mayo with its roots in the Upstate. In June, company management felt it necessary to voluntarily shut down the portion-control operations, which stayed idle for a week, according to Martin Kelly, president and CEO of Sauer Brands Inc. Other areas of the plant have remained in production throughout the pandemic.

Despite what Kelly described as a “foodservice-related dip,” in sales, he said the Duke’s plant has seen strong demand return for its products, and the plant is currently hiring production staff.

Kelly said  a number of tactics are being employed at the plant to ensure employee and product safety, including daily monitoring of employees for signs of illness; mandatory 14-day quarantine with pay for any employees who test positive for Covid-19; and paid quarantine while awaiting test results for any workers who report potential exposure to the virus. The plant also has a strict mask policy for everyone who enters any area within the plant.

In addition, all plantwide training meetings have been postponed, as have all projects that required outside contractors to be on a Sauer site. The only exception has been project that dealt with safety or food safety, according to Kelly.

Extra sanitation steps are being taken in all common and office areas, as well as for commonly touched surfaces in the company’s production facilities, he said.

Kelly also said that “employees that are not tied to the production process are being allowed to work from home where possible.”

No Single Solution

All of the steps being taken by companies like Boeing and Milliken reflect tactics that businesses large and small are investigating, but Alex Clark, director of marketing and communications with the state Department of Commerce, noted that “one size doesn’t fit all.”

“What we are seeing and hearing is that every company is approaching it differently, based on what they do; what their model of operation is; their core values; their workforce. There are some generational considerations. I think it looks different everywhere, but I would agree that with the physical office spaces, that certainly looks different in terms of the configurations, the distancing. It’s mostly anecdotally, but we’re seeing kind of a mixed bag.”

Clark said the two biggest challenges to business reopening and stability are financing and employee safety.

“Financing is big, particularly as it relates to small businesses – not that it’s not felt across the board, but they are particularly impacted,” she said. “That, and protecting employees, how to ensure a safe working environment so that employees feel good about being back and remain healthy and able to be at work.”

Clark said many businesses are using a staggered approach to reopening: “They say ‘we need to bring people back in, but maybe it’s not everybody all at once.’”

Another issue facing all South Carolinians has been the problem of getting goods to market, as was evidenced by shortages from toilet paper to coins. Clark said all states have had to deal with similar issues both for getting products into stores and getting products made in the state out to their markets, but she was optimistic about South Carolina’s commitment to its transportation infrastructure.

“We feel like South Carolina’s in pretty good position in terms of rebounding from Covid-19,” Clark said, “particularly our manufacturers getting back up to speed.”