Box Makers Display Realism and Resolve Amid COVID-19 Crisis
The box makers knew exactly what they were up against, and they weren’t trying to pretend otherwise.
“I am scared to death that we get one positive COVID-19 person in the plant,” said one. “Because I’m afraid that half the people will bail.”
“People are freaking out,” said another, as nearly 400 other participants in a live videoconference did their best to process the onslaught of bad news about the pandemic’s accelerating spread.
But, the tone of the virtual mass huddle, while somber, wasn’t alarmist or despairing. Very much the opposite, in fact, as AICC, The Independent Packaging Association, made its first online outreach to its members about COVID-19’s impact on the corrugated, folding carton, and rigid box industries.
The event, broadcast via Zoom on March 20, was a communal forum that let AICC members assemble as a support group to do two things: commiserate objectively about how the spread of the virus has affected operations at their plants; and share best practices for coping with a situation that, everyone agreed, almost certainly will worsen as COVID-19 forces their businesses deeper into crisis mode.
Taryn Pyle, AICC’s director of education and talent, moderated, with help from co-hosts Mike D’Angelo, president of AICC, and Steve Young, the association’s ambassador-at-large. But, most of the commentary came straight from the members themselves as they tried to pinpoint what is most urgent to know about the swath that COVID-19 is cutting across all sectors of American industry. They also compared notes on how employers should respond in the best interests of their workforces, their customers, and the survival of their companies.
The AICC members weren’t looking for quick fixes or soothing reassurances, knowing those to be meaningless. Instead, they focused on identifying the right questions to ask in a set of circumstances where the answers are still evolving, and where all of the choices are likely to be painful. Among the issues they addressed were:
- Determining how best to sanitize areas of the plant where people testing positive for the COVID-19 virus have been working.
- Ensuring the legality of requiring employees to let their temperatures be taken on site.
- In the face of mandatory lockdowns being imposed by states and cities on many types of commerce, securing “essential business” status for packaging companies and their suppliers.
- Complying with “social distancing” requirements in a factory environment.
- Limiting entry to the plant to employees and supplier personnel.
- Dealing with freight issues now that trucks, reportedly, are in short supply, and shipping rates are rising.
- Easing fears on the part of consumers, and sometimes also employees, about the risks of contamination from handling packaging.
The members’ concerns about staffing were evident throughout, with questions about leave, compensation, cutbacks in paid hours, and the possibility of headcount reductions dominating stretches of the discussion. “Hold on to those people you worked so hard to get on your team,” counseled one member in a text chat. “Amazon is hiring, and you will want them back soon.”
Any industry’s response to a crisis this unprecedented is bound to be improvisational, given that so few established procedures for confronting it exist. Nevertheless, during the videoconference, AICC members reported finding situation-specific ways to quell the disruption brought to their workplaces by COVID-19.
Some plants are spreading the workload of two shifts over three to minimize the number of people working within the building at any one time. Meetings have been suspended, and all personnel who can work from home, do. Other plants have taken to covering screens, doorknobs, and other common touchpoints with cellophane, changing the barriers as frequently as people come into contact with them.
Controlling access for the sake of blunting viral spread is another top priority. One member said the policy at his plant is that if a visitor hasn’t been pre-approved by a manager and temperature-checked upon arrival, “don’t let them in.” This company also uses retinal scanning to verify identity and eliminate the hands-on hazards of touching time clocks. Another has geofenced part of its building in a way that lets employees log in and out with a mobile app instead of having to go to the time-clock kiosk.
The session ended on the consensus that the intrusion of COVID-19 probably will be a not-if-but-when scenario for most plants. Inward and outward communication will be critical while the box making industry grapples with the crisis, members agreed.
D’Angelo said AICC would host follow-up videoconferences about COVID-19 at 2 p.m. EST every Friday for at least three weeks following the initial broadcast. At the association’s web site is a COVID-19 news page that contains links to downloadable recordings of the March 20 program. The page also provides daily updates as well as links to pertinent information from other sources.
A few minutes into the AICC videoconference, it occurred to me that for the first time, I was getting the story about COVID-19’s effects on American business straight from the source: not filtered through news media or modulated by editorial or political spin. If the virtual peer-group session wasn’t exactly a slap in the face, it opened my eyes all the way to just how serious a threat to the printing and packaging industry this awful pandemic likely will be – and to how staunchly the industry is rising to meet it.
One of the greatest strengths of American business has always been its ability to organize and rally itself to meet whatever fate has in store, charting its own course and devising its own strategies and battle plans. The AICC videoconference resonated with that strength as the participants looked a potential business disaster straight in the eye – and refused to flinch. In all my years of writing about this industry, I have never seen a more calmly resolute display of common sense and solidarity among its members than what I witnessed here.
The industry will surmount this crisis, and it will do that as the rest of its organizations take up the same tools that AICC is using to keep their members informed and in touch with each other. As a trade association, AICC has responded splendidly to a turn of events that was, just a few weeks ago, unthinkable for most of us. More of the same from other groups will see us safely through a trial that we didn’t deserve, but that we’ll draw fresh strength from as we endure it together.