Photo: Replacements Limited President Scott Fleming told employees in an email yesterday that as an “essential business,” the company is allowed “to keep shipping consumer goods to people buying online.” (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

With local stay-at-home orders taking effect across the Triad at 5 p.m. today, many manufacturers and other large-scale employers are claiming an exemption as “essential” businesses, even though the role of their operations in supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure appears to be tenuous at best, arousing distress from workers worried that their health is at risk.

Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of
United Technologies Corp. that makes seats for commercial airlines at its West
Point plant in Winston-Salem, issued a letter on Monday indicating that its
employees are performing “essential services” in case they are stopped by
authorities, in anticipation of the restrictions. The letter cited guidance
from the US Department of Homeland Security, while asserting that the West Point
plant “provides essential materials and services” to “airlines, aircraft
manufacturers and other critical transportation providers.”

Other Triad employers have sent out
similar communiques to workers throughout the week.

The president of Replacements Limited, a company that supplies vintage and current dinnerware, told employees in an email sent on Thursday that the Guilford County order “offered businesses like ours (or Amazon’s or Belk’s) the ability to keep shipping consumer goods to people buying online,” while expressing gratitude that “our business is an essential business.”

Furnitureland South in Jamestown is also claiming exemption from the stay-at-home order. Under a plan effective from March 30 through April 5, CEO Jeffrey D. Harris told employees that the company “will be operating under the bare minimum associates necessary to deliver to, and service the clients that continue requesting to have their purchases delivered.” The company is also retaining a reduced facilities services staff to keep buildings clean and sanitized, and Starbucks and Subway will remain open on the campus.

Honda Aircraft Co., which makes
personal luxury jets at Piedmont Triad International Airport near Greensboro,
sent out an email on Wednesday informing employees that they were exempt from
the Guilford County order while instructing them to “continue to report for
work until further notice.” The email declared the company to be an “essential
business” under the criteria set by a March 19 Homeland Security memo that
defining businesses “deemed essential during this public health crisis” as
exempt, including “those critical for manufacture, distribution and supply
chain.”

But on Thursday, the company abruptly announced a temporary suspension of production at its Greensboro facility, although for a reason unrelated to the “essential business” designation. A company spokesperson said production will be suspended for 10 business days, until April 14, “due to anticipated decline in market demand related to the economic impact of COVID-19.”

The email to employees from
Replacements Limited President Scott Fleming conspicuously emphasizes the
company’s financial health over public health considerations, and includes no
explanation about how its operation might be useful in combating the spread of
the virus.

“We want this business to survive
COVID-19,” Fleming wrote. “Many businesses will not. We plan to fight for our
future. We’ve made the decision to operate our remaining onsite operations for
as long as we safely can and should. Our ability to open and operate onsite is
the key to our ability to meet our financial obligations, including providing
pay and benefits during this pandemic and for the longer term. We make the
money we need to operate by shipping orders.”

Reached by phone at Replacements
Limited on Friday, Fleming referred questions about the company’s decision to a
spokesperson. Lisa Conklin later left a voicemail message for Triad City Beat, saying, “At this point,
we’re really busy with our operations, and we are really not going to get into
commenting about what’s going on at this time. We just want to take care of our
people first.”

The three-page stay-at-home order signed by Guilford County Commission Chairman Jeff Phillips declares: “All businesses and operations in the county,” with the exception of some that are exempted as “essential businesses,” “are to cease all activities within the county except minimum basic operations.” Among 22 distinct categories — everything from funeral services to home-based care and services — the order carves out an exemption for “post offices and other businesses that provide shipping and delivery services, and businesses that ship or deliver groceries, food, goods or services to end users through commercial channels.”

Fleming said in his email that non-exempt employees approved for on-site work from March 30 through April 12 will receive a bump in pay of an additional $2 per hour, while exempt employees will receive an $80 weekly premium. And beginning today, employees are receiving three additional days of paid time off. Beginning April 1, Fleming said, “employees will qualify for emergency paid sick leave” and emergency leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Fleming said that if employees have
not been exposed to COVID-19 and are committed to social distancing and good
hygiene, “we want you here as long as we have work for you to do.”

Collins Aerospace in Winston-Salem
took a similar stance.

Citing guidance from Homeland
Security, Konstantinos Katakis, general manager of Collins Aerospace’s West
Point facility, told employees in a letter that they are performing “essential
services,” in part, because “the site provides essential materials and services
under contract or subcontract to airlines, aircraft manufacturers and other
critical transportation providers.”

One employee, who spoke to TCB on condition of anonymity because of
concern that their comments would jeopardize their employment, challenged the
notion that the work performed at the facility supports the nation’s critical
infrastructure.

“We’re producing components for
brand-new airplanes,” they said. “It’s not helping with anything going on.
We’re making parts for new planes that haven’t even been made yet.”

Messages left for Katakis at the
plant on Friday went unreturned.

Winston-Salem’s stay-at-home order, which also went into effect at 5 p.m. today, includes a carve-out for work activity in the transportation sector, including “airlines, taxis, public transportation, transportation network providers (such as Uber and Lyft), vehicle rental services, paratransit, and other private, and commercial transportation and logistics providers necessary for essential activities.”

Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne
suggested during a press conference that operations like Collins Aerospace are
exempted under the order. He said, “Aerospace is part of transportation.”

State and federal authorities concur
that where remote work is not possible, employers should protect their
employees by staggering shifts and requiring proper social distancing by
workers on-site.

The Collins Aerospace employee told TCB that the measures the company has
implemented for worker safety are inadequate. As of Thursday, they said,
management began instructing employees to maintain six feet of distance between
one other.

“The problem — the way
constructing things goes — is everyone is moving around,” they said.
“There’s no way to maintain that space. And everyone touches the same piece of
the component. If anyone is sick, everyone is going to be touching the same
thing.”

Collins Aerospace reportedly sent out letters to staff at its plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 18 indicating that two employees were showing symptoms of COVID-19. Earlier this week, the company confirmed that one of the employees at the Iowa plant tested positive for the disease.

In contrast to hourly workers who
risk exposure to COVID-19 by working together, the employee said that many of
the salaried employees are working alternating weeks to minimize contact with
one another. They said there is no temperature check for personnel entering the
facility.

During a recent meeting in which
workers asked if the company would provide facemasks and gloves, they said a
manager scanned the group and said, “I see people with masks. If you want
masks, that’s on you.”

Honda Aircraft’s email declaring that the company is an “essential business” also cited the Homeland Security guidance.

An employee in the quality
department, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern that their job
would be jeopardized, challenged the notion that the company’s operations play
any critical role in addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

“Honda Aircraft manufactures private
jets that cost $4.5 million, which make them only accessible to millionaires,”
they said. “They are not using aircraft to ferry medical supplies or to ferry
medical personnel. They are declaring themselves an essential business so that
they don’t risk the impact to their own bottom line.”

A company spokesperson, who also
requested anonymity, issued a statement late on Friday arguing that Honda
Aircraft’s operations are essential to both the economy and the fight against
COVID-19. The company, they said, “is vital to the economy, not only by serving
our customers and maintaining commerce, but by supporting our dealers and
business partners, including a number of small businesses. So, employees who
have been asked to briefly continue working are essential not only to Honda
Aircraft, but to the greater good of the economy and well-being of the
communities where they work.”

The spokesperson also suggested that
the HondaJet Elite aircraft could be called into service to help assist efforts
to fight the pandemic.

“Honda is a mobility company and in
general plays a critical role for the transportation system,” they said. “Our
aircraft are utilized for not only business but also for safety and security of
passengers. Also, our aircraft is used to transport critically ill patients who
are seeking life-saving treatment. A fleet of our aircraft could be used as air
ambulances.”

In the meantime, while production is
idle in Greensboro, the spokesperson confirmed that the company “will be
providing several opportunities to make sure our employees will be paid.”

The company dismissed a charge made
by the employee that it is using the Homeland Security guidance as a “loophole”
to maintain corporate profits at the expense of worker safety.

“Honda Aircraft Company’s immediate
focus is on the health of our fellow colleagues, our company, our communities,
and society,” the spokesperson said. “We are taking immediate measures to
ensure the health of all these is met simultaneously.”

The spokesperson said to protect its
workforce from COVID-19, the company has instructed employees to maintain six
feet of distance from one another, including those working inside the aircraft,
along with increased sanitizing.

But the employee said these measures
aren’t adequate or effective.

“The technicians are still sharing
hand-tools, and six feet of separation is difficult to do in this fuselage,”
they said. “Just the way the stations are set up, it’s not likely that someone
is going to be able to maintain six feet of distance. There’s not a good way to
keep hand-tools sanitized — not in the amount that they’re being used, not
in the porosity of the handles.”

The employees in the quality
department are also at risk, they said.

“We all sit very close to each
other,” they said. “We sit in cubicles that are less than six feet apart, in an
environment, where if anyone is coughing or sneezing, it goes around like
wildfire.

“The people at most risk are the
technicians and the quality inspectors,” they continued. “They’re in close proximity.
They’re less likely to have insurance and more likely to be paid less.”

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