By the time executives at the 385-employee Devault Foods in Malvern were seeking a mobile trailer as an extra break room for social distancing, the companies providing those services had closed as nonessential.
“No one was answering the phone. I couldn’t get anything,” said Eric Strunk, the company’s director of facilities and engineering.
So Strunk contacted the Party Center in Phoenixville. The firm offered a heated wedding tent for an add-on break room — with “cute little globes in there that adds to the atmosphere,” Strunk observed — and a separate, smaller tent for health screening right outside the plant entrance.
Mission accomplished, even though the last few weeks have been anything but easy for Devault Foods, deemed an “essential” business by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. The meat processor has aggressively layered new safety measures into plant operations even as managers are seeing higher levels of absenteeism and operating costs. But that’s the new reality during the coronavirus pandemic: persistent vigilance.
“It is definitely adding a lot of extra expenses,” Devault Foods chief executive Brett Black said of the new safety measures. But, he added, “Everyone has anxiety."
The privately owned Devault Foods packages meatballs, sausage, and hamburgers for sale on supermarket shelves. It also supplies restaurants and institutions with packaged food.
At Devault, the precautions begin in the predawn hours, when hourly workers and managers — and eventually visitors throughout the day — are run through 20- to 30-second health screens, entailing an infrared temperature check and six questions about how they feel.
People with temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees are flagged and briefly quarantined. Health screeners recheck the individual’s temperature over the next 10 minutes. If it remains elevated, the worker is sent home.
Employees who pass the screen are handed a wristband to show they can enter the plant — a different color for each day of the week. On Friday, it was pink.
Inside the food-packaging plant, safety manager Jessica Vogler added 40 hand sanitizers — there were many there already because it’s a food processor — and strategically plastered floor stickers reminding people about social distancing. Vogler removed chairs in areas of the plant that did not conform to the six-foot social distancing guidelines. Oval tables dot the floor of the wedding tent: two chairs per table, which has a six-foot diameter.
Growing numbers of infected workers have forced meatpacking plants nationwide to close temporarily, including at least four in Pennsylvania, among them Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazleton and CTI Foods in nearby King of Prussia.
For Black, the mental light bulb on worker anxiety went off when his wife said she was anxious about going to the grocery store. If she was anxious, what about his employees? “The fear for all of us,” Black said, “is what happens if our food supplies stop.”
Company officials said they have had three employees test positive for the coronavirus so far. “They presented symptoms after they were already working and sheltering at home," the company said. "We have no reason to believe that exposure happened on Devault Foods property but rather that they were exposed off-site, likely by members of their household. Those employees are still sheltering at home and remain on the regular payroll. No one at Devault Foods has been dropped from payroll.”
But even with Devault’s actions to make employees feel safe, absenteeism is running higher than normal, Black said, at about 20% of the workforce.
Deanna Geddes, associate dean at the Fox Business School at Temple University and a former chair of the human resource management department, noted that “we are not exactly sure all the ways that it’s transmitted and because of that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty."
She identified three issues with returning to offices, factories, and other workplaces: Employees don’t want to be exposed to the virus. They don’t want to spread it to colleagues and others if they have it and don’t know it. “We don’t want to be the Typhoid Mary of our workplace,” Geddes said.
And third, many employees fear being exposed at work and spreading the virus to family members — who may have compromised health, Geddes said.
As for what the future could look like, “I imagine everyone having their temperature [taken] at the doors," Geddes said. "I imagine everyone wearing masks at work, if other people are around.”
People “will come back in shifts so that we work every other day [and] reduce crowding,” she said.
The pandemic "will change the workplace for the next 12 to 18 months until we get a vaccine,” Geddes added, noting that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I think one of the most important things we can do is to be proactive in preventing exposure in any way we can.”
Wider testing will help, but don’t expect a rapid return to work, Black said.
“It won’t be like a light switch for people to come back to work," he said. "Companies like ours will be challenged to make people feel safe, and I think it will take a while.”