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Employees at Pa.’s ‘life-sustaining’ businesses question if their work is worth the risk

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Inside the PlayWorld facility in Lewisburg, where one worker questioned, "how is playground equipment life-sustaining?”
Robert Inglis / The Daily Item

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JONESTOWN, Pa. — The paper sign taped to the glass doors of a warehouse for designer clothing and footwear warns employees that they might have their temperatures checked before entering. Outside, tractor-trailers lumber around the windowless gray facades of the industrial park, just off the noisy crossroads of two major highways here in south-central Pennsylvania.

A few minutes down the road, the doors are propped open at another warehouse — this one housing children’s toys — on a humid, overcast morning. A security guard sits behind a metal detector, beneath a purple-painted wall with the logo “We Make Wonder Happen Every Day.”

His job is to screen people for any signs of illness.

The continued operations at the two warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic underscore what many have criticized as the inconsistent and confusing nature of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order last month to shutter large swaths of Pennsylvania’s retail, manufacturing, and professional services sectors. Only “life-sustaining” businesses can remain open.

But ambiguity around which businesses qualify — and why — has left employees across the state wondering whether they are unnecessarily risking their health to do a job they don’t consider imperative to survival. The state’s secretive process of granting waivers to some businesses not officially deemed life-sustaining has only fueled confusion among workers.

Over the course of the last month, dozens of people from all corners of Pennsylvania have contacted Spotlight PA to question a business’ decision to remain open, to raise alarm about conditions, or to complain about perceived unfairness in the state’s waiver process.

Some said they do not feel safe going to work but cannot afford to take unpaid leave, even if they wouldn’t lose their jobs. Other employees said they were afraid to demand better pay or challenge their employers, knowing full well that they have few protections should they blow the whistle.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t a heck of a lot of rights if you are employed,” said Scott M. Pollins, a Philadelphia-area attorney specializing in employment law and a board member of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

The question of which businesses should be allowed to remain open is now at the center of a fierce debate in the Capitol between Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature, which on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that could potentially send thousands of people back to work. State and federal health experts have cautioned against the legislature’s appetite to reopen the economy, saying any moves must be measured and based on the best available science — not politics.

Wolf has not indicated how he will act on the bill, though Democrats vociferously opposed it.

In response to concerns, the Wolf administration reopened certain business sectors it had initially shuttered and set up a waiver process to allow companies to make an argument for why they should remain open. More than 42,000 waiver requests were submitted before the application process closed. Of those, 7,596 were approved, 17,010 were denied, and an additional 14,171 were submitted for activities that state officials said did not need exemptions.

While designed to ease concerns, the waiver process has in some cases sowed more confusion than clarity for businesses and their employees. For instance, a company might be granted a waiver to provide a very narrow or specific product or service — but the business might take it as a green light to reopen completely with a full complement of workers.

On the ground, there is growing resentment.

One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, works at a central Pennsylvania plant that makes playground equipment. The employee said the company has taken steps to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, taking workers’ temperatures at the door, propping doors open to minimize the need for touching handles and doorknobs, and cleaning work areas, break rooms, and bathrooms.

But the employee said there are parts of the manufacturing process where social distancing is not possible if the job is to be done safely. Underlying all those concerns is the nagging feeling that making playground equipment is not essential.

“I, as well as other workers, would like to work,” said the employee, who requested anonymity because the company’s workers are not authorized to talk to the media. “We don’t want the interruption in being able to support our families. But how is playground equipment life-sustaining?”

Representatives for the company, PlayWorld in Lewisburg, did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment.

According to the Wolf administration, the company submitted a waiver application, describing itself as a plastics manufacturer. That’s a business category that is considered life-sustaining by the administration, so an exemption was not required.

“However, upon review, the company makes recreational and playground equipment and therefore should not be opened,” said Casey Smith, spokesperson for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which is overseeing the waiver process.

Though Wolf empowered local and state law enforcement to cite businesses that aren’t complying with the shutdown order, only warnings have been issued to date. And state officials with the Department of Community and Economic Development have not proactively enforced the order but instead used complaints and media inquiries to review potential violators.

The stakes are high for businesses and their employees. A waiver could mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. On the other hand, unnecessary business operations could put workers’ health and safety at risk, and without enforcement, they can be in a precarious position.

State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine on Wednesday signed an order requiring all businesses that remain open to take certain measures to protect employees, including requiring workers to wear masks, staggering work start times, and ensuring that there is enough space for people to practice social distancing while taking breaks.

If a company discovers that one of its employees has been exposed to the virus, it will have to start screening temperatures at the door. If one of its employees tests positive, the business will have to close, ventilate, and sanitize all areas where the employee worked or visited.

At the central Pennsylvania warehouse and distribution center for designer brands, including Vans and Timberland, workers were told the company qualified to remain open under Wolf’s list of life-sustaining businesses, which includes a “warehousing and storage” category.

Yet just this week, it abruptly shut down for 48 hours for a deep clean after two employees tested positive for COVID-19. The company, VF Corp., said it has launched a “contact tracing protocol” to determine which employees might have been exposed and require them to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.

“Any employee who is self-quarantined will continue to receive full pay and benefits under our emergency pay plan,” according to spokesperson Colin Wheeler, who said the company also drafted a new shift schedule so that fewer workers are on the warehouse floor at the same time.

It is that precise scenario that one employee said he fears will play out at the 266,000-square-foot facility he works at in Clearfield County, along with about 250 others.

The company, Appalachian Wood Products, supplies cabinet components for the kitchen and bath industry. Other businesses like it had to shut down under Wolf’s order, but Appalachian Wood received a waiver because its wood shavings are used to make low-bacteria bedding for dairy animals, according to state officials.

The company employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the wood chips are sold to farmers. They, in turn, use it for bedding to prevent their cows from developing mastitis, which affects milk and can even kill the animal.

“Nobody wants cows to die,” the employee said. “But how can we see that as anything other than the company thinking that the cows’ lives are more important than ours?”

Appalachian Wood’s owner, Dennis McCahan, said the company is taking all required precautions, including social distancing, to keep employees safe.

Pollins, the lawyer specializing in employment law, said his firm has received an uptick in calls from panicked employees who have to work but are scared for their health. If they are not unionized, Pollins said, he recommends workers calmly and respectfully raise their concerns with management or human resources, and to do so in writing.

He said there are whistleblower protections under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, but those only kick in if an employer retaliates against a worker who raises concerns about safety and health conditions. Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law applies only to government employers and, in some situations, private-sector employers that receive government dollars.

And those laws do not provide paths or strategies for workers who find themselves in the undesirable position of having to show up to a job that they don’t consider essential.

“These are totally unprecedented times, no matter who you work for,” Pollins said.

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