Factories bringing back workers amid coronavirus retooling

As factories start bringing back workers laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, some are retooling to meet coronavirus-related demands.

Designetics, a firm near Toledo, Ohio, that makes windshield coating systems, now has about half its 73 workers trained to make custom protective barriers to prevent coronavirus transmission.

The switch started when a local hospital asked for a particular size barrier for ultrasound sessions with expectant mothers. Orders flowed in from grocery stores, restaurants and beauty salons.

“It’s really the big thing right now,” Designetics President Sydney Spraw said. “It’s been a nice addition to what we’ve lost on the automotive side.”

Manufacturing jobs nationwide are starting to come back from their pandemic nosedive. Falling by more than 1.3 million between February and April, they hit 11.4 million, the lowest number since March 2010, after the Great Recession.

Manufacturing jobs increased in May and June by about 700,000, but remain 6% below the same point in 2019 — about the level they were five years ago as the recovery took hold, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Some states are trying to boost manufacturing job numbers by helping factories reach out to potential customers of barriers, masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE.

States are easing the path in other ways, too. As manufacturers look to make protective equipment on the side, many are worried about liability, said Linda Kelly, general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group.

“You now have digital printing facilities making face shields, or textile makers that now make masks and gowns,” Kelly said. “If I’m making something I’ve never made before, am I going to be held to some obscure standard when I’m just trying to step up and do the right thing in an emergency?”

At least eight states have passed laws or issued an executive order to limit liability during the pandemic, and three more are considering it.

Automotive manufacturers across the country, including makers of parts and supplies, are having the most trouble bouncing back.

Jobs in that sector dropped by 40% or about 580,000 jobs between March and April, and increased by about 35,000 in May as some automakers started adding shifts again, according to a Stateline analysis of Current Population Survey data provided by the University of Minnesota.

The slight improvement in automotive jobs will be hard to sustain because there’s a worldwide glut of unsold cars, said William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO and a former assistant labor secretary in the Obama administration.

Automotive plants large and small have been turning to PPE as a side job.

Cadillac Parts, a parts supplier near Detroit, began making hospital gowns when managers heard local hospitals were in desperate need.

“The downturn is forcing people to get creative and innovative,” said Clinton Longenecker, a business professor at the University of Toledo. “We’ll see a lot of positive things when the economy returns to normal if we can just survive this current crisis.”

More: Factories bringing back workers amid coronavirus retooling