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Spokane manufacturing struggling to adjust to changing conditions

UPDATED: Tue., March 24, 2020

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With conditions changing sometimes by the minute, some area manufacturers are struggling to make sure employees remain safe while they try to keep their businesses viable.

Wade Larson, the human resources director at Wagstaff Inc. in Spokane Valley, said he learned Monday night the aluminum casting business is one of those deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee and therefore can continue operating during the novel coronavirus outbreak without sending all of its 435 employees home.

“The doors are still open. But at the same time, there is that balance of operational needs and keeping (employees) safe and healthy,” Larson said. “We are identifying who can work from home. But as a manufacturer, most jobs you can’t work from home.”

The quandary at Wagstaff has been playing out at hundreds of Washington businesses. Scores of owners have contacted the Association of Washington Business seeking guidance about how best to proceed during the unprecedented work stoppage to deal with the virus.

“We are getting a lot of questions and concerns from employers,” said Jason Hagey, the vice president of AWB communications. “We are doing our best to steer them toward resources that we know of.”

Last week, the organization conducted a survey that was completed before Inslee’s order Monday evening sending home all but employees at essential businesses in the state. Some 794 business owners responded and about 81% said they had been negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results that were posted March 21.

More than half of the business owners said they had to make staffing adjustments even before Inslee’s announcement. About 80% said the situation caused revenue disruptions, and 44% said they had to reduce hours.

One respondent, who was not identified, already had laid off 80% of the company’s staff.

“We are loaning employees money to help pay bills,” one business owner wrote.

Nearly half of the companies reported supply-chain disruptions and 80% of the businesses had to change operations. Even among those employers that did not make changes, about 59% anticipated they would have to in the next six months.

“I will protect my team and keep them gainfully employed for as long as I can,” wrote another employer, who was not identified.

Another Spokane-area business, Pearson Packaging Systems, posted on its website Tuesday it has been designated as critical industry infrastructure by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The majority of its customers use its packaging systems to provide food, agriculture and pharmaceutical products.

“At this time, we are fully operational and fully staffed,” chairman and CEO Michael Senske wrote. “Our supply chains do not indicate any short- or long-term disruptions.

As for Wagstaff, which was founded in 1907, the third-generation company is still working on orders that came in months ago.

The company uses “direct chill” casting to manufacture aluminum parts for all kinds of applications, including for hydroelectric dams and nuclear engineering, Larson said.

“We are working on orders from a year ago,” he said. “We are still doing OK.”

But Larson pointed out some medical officials predict the number of virus infections may increase for six weeks before peaking and could cause employment disruptions for a long as 18 months.

“That’s a long time to be up in the air with jobs and figuring this all out,” he said.

In the meantime, Larson said, his company continues to work with its partners to let them know they are still taking orders. But they are also using their engineers and technical experts to identify who can work from home.

“From our end as an employer, our biggest job is to keep morale up,” Larson said. “We need to keep our employees focused and not going crazy. Even though our doors are open, we are sending as many employees home as possible.”

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