Temporary workers were some of the first people to lose manufacturing jobs when the coronavirus started to spread into the Midwest, and they also filled in the gaps left by the highly contagious virus at essential businesses.
Now experts say they’re filling key roles at companies that once again are ramping up production. In manufacturing facilities, that includes new non-conventional positions such as temperature screeners implemented to meet the safety demands of the post-shutdown workplace.
Fettig, a Grand Rapids-based employment agency, is among the companies staffing workplace screeners in manufacturing plants across the region.
“We have a lot of people that are working as temperature screeners today. That was a job that we never had before,” said President Mike Fettig.
He estimated that only about 15 percent of workplaces were pre-screening employees before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered them to do so as part of the state’s economic reopening plan.
Fettig expects the need for people trained to screen incoming workers — and possibly incoming patrons — will increase as more businesses open their doors.
After an initial “wave of mass layoffs,” the company is back to about 70 percent of its pre-crisis staffing levels, Fettig said.
First to return
Temporary workers lost their jobs in manufacturing plants at least a week before the state of Michigan ordered most businesses to close to prevent further spread of COVID-19, according to Shannon Burkel, chief client officer at Staffing Inc., a division of Axios Inc.
Employers in the region “immediately” laid off “well over 50 percent” of the Grand Rapids-based staffing company’s employees, Burkel told MiBiz.
While many companies idled production under the state’s stay-at-home orders, others needed to add staffing quickly to meet the demand for personal protective equipment and medical equipment.
For some West Michigan companies, that meant bringing in temporary workers to fill in gaps in production and supplement existing groups of internal employees within the plants, said Burkel, whose company helps staff about 200 manufacturing businesses across the region.
“We had many of our client partners start making something new or something that was a little bit of a spin-off of what they currently were making, and then they were deemed essential,” Burkel said. “We got to a temporary employment level that did steady up over the last five weeks because there was this group of businesses shifting and making face shields, masks, gowns, parts of the swabs for testing. Those people remained working.”
After temps are placed on a job site, temporary staffing agencies continue to act as their employer, which forms some unique challenges, especially when it comes to safety.
For the first few weeks of the crisis, and while information on how to protect workers from the virus was still being perfected, precautions like protective gear and social distancing varied widely based on individual placements, according to Maggie McPhee, director of information services at The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.
However, since Whitmer released executive orders containing clear safety procedures to be implemented in workplaces that began reopening in the past few weeks, McPhee said there is more uniformity among worksites in the region.
“The preparedness plans, the temperature checks and the health questionnaires are the three big things that I’m hearing about,” McPhee said.
Even before the crisis when job sites were working under relatively normal conditions, temporary workers experienced higher rates of workplace injuries than permanent employees, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
These vulnerabilities may be multiplied during a health crisis like COVID-19. Currently, temporary workers in Illinois are petitioning Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office for help because they allege employers are not respecting the state’s safety guidelines. Even at global tech companies like Facebook and Google, temporary workers were not granted remote access to their work during the crisis and were forced to commute to job sites even while permanent employees were directed to work from home, according to multiple reports.
While temporary workers face added vulnerabilities, they also may stir up increased fear among permanent employees or face discrimination because of their temporary status, according to McPhee.
“Regular employees don’t necessarily want the temps in there because they don’t know where they have been and they don’t know what they’re coming from or anything about them,” she said.
Still, temporary workers are quickly filling in the gaps left behind by employees who may have shown symptoms of COVID-19, who feel uncomfortable coming back to work or who have to remain home to take care of family members, according to Fettig.
“We’ve had thousands of people working through this period of time,” he said. “We’ve been extremely busy with helping essential employers maintain their staffing levels and grow and then also very busy with staffing companies that have built whole new programs.”
Fettig is administering “constant” testing of its workforce, he added, noting five people staffed by the company have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I thought with having as many employees that we had that we would have hundreds sick, or I expected we’d have whole groups of people getting sick, and then maybe even some of our worksites needed to be shut down,” Fettig said. “We’ve had hundreds of people tested and a lot fewer people test positive than we expected.”
Fettig credits the relatively few outbreaks of the highly contagious virus in manufacturing plants to the caution and concern from the region’s employers.
“West Michigan manufacturers care about their employees, and absolutely it’s coming through time and again with the calls and with the practices that they’re putting in place. These people really want their people to feel safe and be safe at work,” Fettig said.
Whether the state government allows more businesses to reopen quickly or not, the need for temporary workers will persist.
At Fettig, any return to staffing levels from before the crisis would likely stem from placing workers in jobs that didn’t previously exist, especially given persistent concerns about some of the state’s largest manufacturing sectors.
“The reports I’m getting from the automotive sector that we service are pretty bleak and still seem pretty uncertain. I would say it is going to still be down,” Fettig said. “If we are back to 100 percent this fall, it’s because of additional business landed and additional contracts awarded to us because we’ve delivered throughout this period of time. We are getting some notice from other businesses that were not our customers before the shutdown.”