‘Empathy needs to come before productivity’: Inside warehouses and factories still operating in the U.S.

Despite city- and state-mandated lockdowns across the country, many apparel factories and warehouses have kept their doors open in those communities from New Jersey to Washington.

These companies are either continuing to make product as usual, shipping out e-commerce orders or pivoting to making protective equipment for health-care workers and consumers. But there are real concerns around the safety and wellbeing of these workers (including those employed by Amazon), and questions around whether companies are taking social distancing and cleanliness seriously inside these spaces. Some have questioned whether fashion and apparel brands are using the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a side hustle to keep their businesses running as usual during widespread shutdowns, though most companies interviewed seem more focused on getting protective gear to those who need it.

Canada Goose is ramping up to have 900 employees across Canada making PPE equipment, with a goal of making 60,000 L2 surgical protective gowns per week, a total of 1.5 million units. DTC women’s clothing company Laws of Motion committed to making over two million surgical gowns by May. Michael Stars is making and selling three-packs of leopard print or striped masks to keep customers safe, and is donating high-quality white masks to health-care workers. Over the weekend, the company sold 300 sets of striped masks, roughly 50% of the inventory the company had, and to date has sold through 1,000 leopard masks, said Suzanne Lerner, president of Michael Stars. These companies have all pivoted their focus to make PPE, but are still producing some of their own products in the process.

Michael Stars, which has two warehouses in the Los Angeles area, has kept both spaces open, but has significantly decreased the number of people working in them. Lerner said she furloughed 60% of her staff, but that 40% of those people are being paid as part-time employees, from home. Lerner hired seven sewers to work from one of the warehouses to help make masks for the Los Angeles Protects program. Within the 44,000-square-foot warehouse, there are about 22 people working each day, while the other 20,000-square-foot warehouse has about four people helping with e-commerce orders. The marketing team comes in on Friday to ship out orders and masks.

While Michael Stars, like many other companies, continues to keep warehouses and factories operational, there are plenty of challenges involved in ensuring all the workers are kept safe.

Lerner, who is working from the larger Los Angeles warehouse, said she walks around throughout the day to make sure everyone stays six feet, or more, apart.

“We are leaving all the doors open, the bathroom doors, even fire exit areas so no one has to touch anything. Everyone has been wearing gloves and using hand sanitizer. When we are processing masks, we wash them in hot water. I’m kind of the cop making sure everyone is taking care of themselves,” she said.

Adore Me is also operating but taking extra precautions to keep workers safe. The company’s warehouse is in Secaucus, New Jersey where the state enacted a stay-at-home order beginning on March 21. Adore Me is still producing and shipping out products to customers, with the return window for orders has been extended from 30 days to 90 days to keep return volume low. In New Jersey, non-retail businesses like warehouses are allowed to stay open. 

At the beginning of March, employees in the Adore Me warehouse implemented mandatory temperature screenings before starting the work day, said Ranjan Roy, head of content at Adore Me. If someone had a temperature, they would be sent home. All of Adore Me’s warehouse workers are full-time employees, not contractors, so everyone has full benefits and paid time off.

“You hear about some of these Amazon warehouse cases of [coronavirus] and then sending people back to work as soon as possible. We are ready to shut down if there are reported cases, for at least enough time to completely cleanse the facility,” said Roy.

Etailz, an e-commerce growth platform that handles inventory management, has a warehouse located in Spokane, Washington, where most businesses including restaurants and bars have been shut down since March 17. Etailz’ warehouse has remained open and operational. There have, however, been adjustments to how things get done, said Brock Kowalchuk, chief financial officer of Etailz. That includes guaranteeing access to masks, hand sanitizer, wipes and other disinfecting products for each and every work space.

“In a crisis, empathy needs to come before productivity. We are making sure we’re listening to our warehouse workers at every level, to make sure they have what they need,” said Kowalchuk.

When the shutdown first went into effect, Etailz’ workers were given additional paid time off — Kowalchuk declined to share specifics – and the company adopted a “skeleton crew” to work in the warehouse. Etailz separated its workers into two groups, cutting the number of people working in the warehouse at one time in half. Those groups rotate working every week. Kowalchuk did not share the number of warehouse workers currently employed by the company. This has cut productivity, and Kowalchuk said he and his team are regularly communicating with brand partners and retailers that there could be delays on orders in the coming weeks.

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