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Manufacturing continues in Capital Region as other businesses hibernate in COVID-19 shutdowns

Manufacturing continues in Capital Region as other businesses hibernate in COVID-19 shutdowns

Meet four area companies continuing to produce products rated "essential" during COVID-19 crisis
Manufacturing continues in Capital Region as other businesses hibernate in COVID-19 shutdowns
The manufacturing floor is shown at Environment One in Niskayuna.
Photographer: PHOTO PROVIDED

Not everyone is working from home.

Capital Region manufacturers tiny and huge are in full production as the state and national economies slow further and further amid the COVID-19 crisis.

In most cases they’ve sent their business personnel packing to work at home, like much of the rest of the civilian workforce.

It's easy enough for accountants or newspaper writers to work at a home computer, unshaven with a dog lounging at their feet.

But production workers don't have millions of dollars' worth of production equipment in their basement. They need to report to the factory.

And so production staffs remain on site in the kitchen, or at the workbench, or in the cleanroom, working as far apart as possible.

Here’s a look at four Capital Region manufacturers that are rated “essential” and so are able to continue producing and shipping product amid work-at-home orders that have idled nonessential facilities.

None of the four have laid off employees, though most have their non-manufacturing staff working from home.

CHIPS ARE EVERYWHERE

GlobalFoundries has one of the largest private-sector workforces in the Capital Region (roughly 3,000) and some of the most ubiquitous products: Its technology is in 85 percent of all those smartphones that make it possible for people to function remotely in a crisis such as a pandemic.

That alone would rank its Malta computer chip factory as an “essential” manufacturer. But its products are also directly involved in the effort to treat infected patients and keep healthy people apart through remote work and schooling.

“The chips that we manufacture are enabling products for health care medical devices, infrastructure, other pieces in this global crisis,” said Laurie Kelly, vice president of global communications.

A couple of things have worked in GlobalFoundries' favor for operating in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the company had early insight to how bad things could get when its sales and design staff had to work from home in China, where the virus originated. Then its Singapore chip fab plant had to adjust when that country became one of the first places outside China to see a large outbreak.

Crisis management exercises were held in New York as this was going on. “We learned a lot from our colleagues in Singapore,” Kelly said. “We were ahead of the curve on some of the executive orders."

Finally, a chip fab plant is one of the most sanitary workplaces in the world, closer to sterile than a hospital operating room and ideal for slowing the transmission of disease from one person to the next. Workers in the cleanroom are covered from scalp to toe in sanitary garb.

“You can’t really get any cleaner,” Kelly said.

All the non-production workers have been sent home to work, so the janitorial staff has stopped cleaning the office areas, and is instead giving extra attention to the areas where people are still working.

Thus far, only two production workers in New York have contracted COVID-19, and evidence shows it was through social contact off-site.

No one knows what’s over the horizon that might affect GlobalFoundries or the many components in its supply chain. But the process is functioning well now.

“The best-laid plans have worked in our favor,” Kelly said. “A big shout-out to our employees who are coming in.”

LAST NORMAL DAY

At Espey Manufacturing & Electronics in Saratoga Springs, everyone not in hands-on production began working from home March 17.

“I think normalcy probably ended the week before,” CEO Patrick Enright said. "I think Monday the 16th was a wakeup call for a lot of folks.”

Engineers took home their large desktop computers. For everyone else, the five-person IT staff prepped 70 laptops for remote work. It was a big change — all but a couple of the roughly 170 employees worked on site before COVID-19 hit. Now only about two-thirds do.

Why is Espey deemed essential? Its equipment is aboard most new U.S. Navy vessels and many aircraft.

“I think it’s just what we do,” Enright said. “The majority of our work is for the United States Department of Defense. We need to continue to deliver the products that we sell.”

On the production floor, most people were already working separately — cranes and lift tables take care of lifts too heavy for one person to do alone.

“There are instances when our team needs to support each other closer than six feet,” Enright said, such as when one person conducts a high-voltage test and a second stands by to cut off the power in case of a problem.

They aren’t wearing masks or gloves — Espey doesn’t have enough for everybody and if it did, it would probably donate them to a hospital.

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Beyond Espey’s own walls, it’s clearly not business as usual, he said. Early Tuesday, employees drove three hours south to one of the areas hard-hit by COVID-19 to pick up a load of parts. They found the materials stacked up on a loading dock, the door closed behind them — no one would come out to risk contact.

Uncertainty is growing, Enright said.

The company is preparing to run tests in Vermont, for example. “We don’t know if we’re going to be allowed in or out,” he said.

Espey’s supply chain is secure at this point, and Espey has issued letters to its suppliers and employees saying they are essential to national security, so they need to work and sometimes travel. It can only hope that things hold up, and work reactively to fix any link in the chain that breaks.

“In business, hope is never a strategy ... but this is such uncharted water,” Enright said.

CRUNCHED

Food production is an essential business and demand is high as people hoard goods. Gatherer’s Granola of Rotterdam is in the unhappy position of being unable to capitalize because it can’t bring in new workers.

CEO Sandro Gerbini said he was in the process of hiring six people to increase production in mid-March when they realized that they could make more on unemployment with the new relief measures being enacted than they could by working — state and federal aid combined are more than a 40-hour paycheck for many low- to moderate- wage jobs.

All six new hires backed out.

“There were some perverse incentives that came out of this,” Gerbini said.

He’s hoping that some incentives are offered to stay in work instead.

COVID-19 itself isn’t a risk to the cleanliness of the granola that Gerbini and his team make — “Our food safety plan already accounted for transmission of diseases and prevention of that,” he said.

What worries him is contagion among the workers. There have been a couple of sore throats reported but no virus among the 15 employees. The production area is large enough that they can be kept more than six feet apart, and they’ve begun staggered shifts to further limit contact.

But a confirmed case of COVID-19 would set the struggling operation back even further.

“We were falling behind before this occurred,” Gerbini said. “We need to be producing 5,000 pounds a week just to tread water.

“We’ve never had a stronger sales funnel. We are asking for higher prices on most of the work we're doing because it’s costing us more in this period.”

Along with the immediate impact of the virus, Gatherer’s Granola has seen some ripple effects.

Plastic bag factories in China shut down early on when COVID-19 began to spread there. Gatherer’s Granola had sourced its granola bags from an American manufacturer, but that company was promptly swamped after the Chinese shutdown. Now Gatherer’s can’t get paper towels for the continual cleanup it needs to do, and can’t get a call back from the linen companies that could supply cloth wipes washed at sanitizing temperatures.

“It’s a weird world,” Gerbini said.

KEEP ON ROLLING

Environment One Corp. in Niskayuna has two business lines, both essential to the smooth functioning of modern society: components for pumped sewer systems and safety systems for power generation facilities.

“They’re life services,” said CEO Eric LaCoppola.

E/One equipment moves 200 million gallons of sewage a day worldwide and protects people who work in power plants.

Like most New Yorkers, the E/One employees who can work at home are doing so electronically. “We're a locked-down network,” said LaCoppola.

In the production area of the large building off Balltown Road, workers are keeping up their work and keeping six feet apart. A few benches and workstations needed to be moved and sanitation efforts were stepped up, but for the most part, employees were not working side by side even before the global pandemic arrived in New York.

E/One sells its products in 45 countries and has yet to see a significant impact from COVID-19 in any of those places, LaCoppola added.

Here at home, a couple of workers with spouses in the medical field have worried about their own health, he added, but so far, no one at E/One is known to have contracted the virus.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Supporting the Capital Region manufacturing community as always is the Center for Economic Growth, but not in the same way it usually does.

It’s trying to help companies navigate unprecedented circumstances with rapidly shifting obstacles and rapidly changing options for assistance.

“A lot of it has just been constantly being informed of what’s happening,” said CEG President Andrew Kennedy.

Working with chambers of commerce, the CEG is trying to direct resources to companies that remain in business and help some manufacturers pivot to produce materials for the fight against COVID-19.

“Some companies lost much of their supply chain in Asia,” Kennedy said.

Others are struggling with inconsistencies in rules and guidance, and unfamiliarity with what new forms of assistance are available, especially from the U.S. Small Business Association.

“There’s clearly been a shock factor with almost all the service industries shut down,” he added.

With all the attention placed on the crisis' impact right now, businesses also need to prepare and be ready for the restart of the economy after the crisis peaks — again with the unknowns of when that will happen and what the landscape will look like at that point.

CEG has had to make a pivot of its own: Its focus in normal times has been to bring new companies into the region. Within a few weeks, it has shifted to keeping existing companies from leaving or failing.

GAZETTE COVID-19 COVERAGE

The Daily Gazette is committed to keeping our community safe and informed and is offering our COVID-19 coverage to you free.
Our subscribers help us bring this information to you. Please consider a subscription at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe to help support these efforts.
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