RACINE, WI – Local manufacturer InSinkErator told employees this week that two co-workers and a vendor tested positive for COVID-19.
Missouri-based Emerson owns Racine-based InSinkErator. Officials there have worked with the Central Racine County and City of Racine health departments to mitigate further spread of the virus. But, some employees voiced concerns about their safety as the company set up protocols to help contain the spread of the virus.
Considered an essential business because they make garbage-disposers, InSinkErator sells products to commercial and residential customers.
In a letter dated April 20, InSinkErator President Joe Dillon told staff that two employees from the 21st Street location tested positive for COVID-19, but they hadn’t been in the facility since March 24. Those employees were out on a leave of absence before experiencing symptoms.
On Tuesday, Dillon told the staff that a vendor tested positive for the virus, but he hadn’t been at the facility since April 11. That person worked in an isolated area and was not symptomatic when he was at InSinkErator, according to the letter.
“There were no InSinkErator employees in close contact with the individual for prolonged periods,” the April 21 letter states.
Somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of adults could contract the virus, and about a fifth of the people who get COVID-19 could need to be hospitalized. Still, the question has been — over what timeframe, according to officials at the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Health officials have voiced concerns that the spread of the virus could mean more significant numbers of people will need medical care. If that happens, hospitals will not be able to deal with a higher volume of patient care. The term flattening the curve refers to fewer people contracting the virus and having less of an impact on the state’s healthcare system.
Last week, Governor Tony Evers extended the Safer at Home order until May 26, but essential businesses — like InSinkErator — remain open because they supply the construction industry.
Slowing the spread, what InSinkErator is doing
Employees are working at home if they can, but that doesn’t include factory workers. The company has implemented social distancing of employees, staggered shifts, put up plastic barriers at work stations, increased lunch break and time clock distancing, and increased cleaning for areas that are high-touch and high traffic.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the InSinkErator facility has been deep cleaned and disinfected in the affected area,” said Emerson spokesperson David Baldridge.
But several employees — who asked not to be named — have voiced concerns over the company’s handling of the mitigation efforts.
One person told RCE that many employees are “angry because they have not even tried to sanitize and clean the factory,” which would have taken about two days to do.
“Everyone talks because everyone is upset, and word gets around quick,” the person said. “They’re still talking about the issue today… people want off so they can really deep clean the building.”
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Sanitizers, check. Facemasks, not required
More than 1,200 bottles of hand sanitizer have been distributed to employees, with refills available. Management has asked employees who feel ill or register a temperature to stay home. Healthcare workers screen all employees and contractors daily before coming into work. And only essential visitors can enter the Racine facility, according to the statement.
“In line with current public health guidelines, we have informed employees they can wear masks if they choose. We have conferred with the Central Racine County Health Department about our procedures.” the statement reads.
On March 24, employees received a letter stating that they could take time off using vacation time of un-paid leave through April 5 if they had concerns about contracting the virus.
A second source said about 200-plus employees took the company up on its offer.
“I took it off, of course. My health was more important than wealth,” the person said. “Then, everyone needs to come back with the exception of the employees that are struggling with child care. They can come back May 4, I think.”
Another person complained that medical staff hired to take the employees’ temperatures never showed up. Management at InSinkErator told the staff that taking employees’ temperatures was mandatory, or they would be sent home. But when the medical staff failed to show up, the workers were still required to work.
Also, the company has been buying staff lunch, but they stand shoulder to shoulder with co-workers, and no one is required to wear a mask.
“I don’t even know how they can even keep the cafeteria open,” the person said. “Everything else had to close, only drive-throughs (are open). I read that only the cafeterias that feed medical staff can keep open. That’s definitely not the case at work.”
Baldridge declined to comment any further on the employees’ allegations.
InSinkErator is doing better than most, city officials say
Officials with the City of Racine Health Department have visited the facility several times as they implemented the mitigation measures, said Shannon Powell, a spokesperson with the City of Racine.
“They are doing better than most businesses. Period,” Powell said. “And they have been more proactive than most.”
Dottie-Kay Bowersox, Public Health Administrator for the City of Racine Health Department, told Powell that potentially every essential business in every sector that has employees who come down with the virus could eventually be impacted. But shutting those essential businesses down isn’t something the health department plans to do, especially if they are taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Still, the department follows Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. It defines which businesses are considered essential or nonessential. The compliance process is driven by complaints or communications with local public health departments. Officials there respond to or investigate those complaints.
“So I don’t know that she could (shut them down) unless there were some sort of massive violations of things because if they qualify as an essential business under the governor’s order, they can stay open,” Powell said.
Still, Powell knows not everyone is happy.
“If they have been given the designation from the state that they are an essential business, Dottie-Kay isn’t just going to shut them down if they’re trying to do things to mitigate the spread,” Powell said.