Manufacturers, Other Local Employers Adapt To New Realities

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Mar 18, 2020
Acme Smoked Fish is one of many area employers making adjustments in the workplace in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (File photo)
Local employers are making adjustments in the workplace in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One of those companies is Atlantic Packaging Corp., a multi-generational family-run business headquartered in Wilmington.

Atlantic Packaging's manufacturing operations, ship departments and warehouses continue to operate, said Wes Carter, president of Atlantic Packaging, which has about 1,200 employees companywide.

“The consumer goods supply chain is complex and critical to every American. We are a part of that supply chain and take our responsibility to its effective functioning very seriously," Carter said. "That begins with doing our utmost to protect our people, communicating clearly to our own organization and customers, staying calm and taking action to get prepared to respond quickly to an ever-evolving situation.”

Other companies across the region are doing the same amid the health crisis, which has already impacted major events and service industries across the state.

North Carolina's coronavirus cases rose again Wednesday, with a total of 63 cases in the state. There has been one confirmed presumptive positive case in New Hanover County as of 4:20 p.m. Wednesday, and there has been one previously confirmed case in Brunswick County. 

As the situation continues to escalate across the state, many of the area's businesses are shifting their workplace settings to keep business going.

“We have already implemented a significant number of protocols to remain as high functioning as possible," Carter said. "The people who can work remotely are working remotely. For instance, all of our outside salespeople and technicians started working out of their homes last week.

“We have already scaled back the employee density in our offices and have many administrative people working from home, as well. Thanks to the incredible work of our leadership, office staffs and IT group, we are prepared to implement a full work-from-home protocol with all office personnel," he said. "As of now, we are ramped up for that scenario because we don’t know what the future holds."

Employees that are working to keep Atlantic's manufacturing operations running are wearing protective gear, taking their temperatures daily before entering facilities and practicing social distancing, Carter said.

"We have a strict 'no visitor' policy that has been in place since last week, and that includes outside truck drivers," Carter said, adding that other extra precautions, like outdoor paperwork stations, have been taken at Atlantic's facilities.

Atlantic Packaging is allowing those 65 or over to work from home regardless of their job, he said, “because they are in the high-risk category.”

With on-site staff, Atlantic Packaging is taking health and safety measures, including keeping sick employees out of the workplace. Anyone who shows signs of sickness or a temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater is required to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days, per the CDC guidelines, he said.

“We are following all the recommendations of the CDC and … we are doing everything we can possibly do to stay in front of this situation as much as possible,” Carter said.

But that has not come without its challenges for the company, he said.

Atlantic Packaging supplies the packaging needs for many major consumer products companies.

"These companies manufacture many, much-needed items in the current crisis situation, including towels and tissues, food, beverage, medical and cleaning supplies," Carter said.

An interruption in the packaging supply chain impacts the ability of those products to reach the places for the consumers, he said.

“We have chosen to be aggressive rather than be complacent because of the nature of our business and our commitment to our employees. The packaging we sell is critical to these companies that need to deliver their goods.

“We feel very confident at this point that we will remain in operation,” Carter said. “I don’t foresee us having any interruption in service at all, but we’ve had to be relatively aggressive on the front of this thing out of a high level of responsibility to our customers and the general public.”

Acme Smoked Fish is also continuing normal operations as well as taking measures to keep its employees safe, said Felipe Espinosa, director of manufacturing at Acme.

The company has about 250 employees that work at its Pender County facility. As a processor of specialty food products, with its primary product being cold-smoked salmon, it is also considered a critical industry, being in food supplies.

“We are continuing operations as normal and will do so as far as we can keep our people safe. We have implemented measures, but naturally, our business has high manufacturing practices," Espinosa said.

The company is in communication with its employees about general health guidelines and social distancing, as well as working to alleviate worries. The company is also encouraging office staff to work from home and is rotating work-from-home employees and on-site employees to reduce the density in its offices, Espinosa said.

Factory operations continue to roll and its supply chain has not been affected. Acme has, however, implemented a no visitation policy for unnecessary visits to the factory.

“We are considered a critical infrastructure industry,” Espinosa said. “We have the responsibility to maintain our normal work schedules as much as we can.”

Another Pender County firm, Filmwerks, is continuing to operate as normal and is fully staffed. The Rocky Point-based company has more than 150 employees companywide, including about 100 locally.

In response to a shift in demand, Filmwerks is utilizing its gear and employees to focus on the needs of the community both locally and nationally, company officials said.

The global company builds sets and provides an array of other services and equipment for the broadcast, events and entertainment industry.

Filmwerks was slated to serve clients for a wide range of events this year, including March Madness. But events across the state and nation have been canceled for social distancing in response to the coronavirus.

With the cancellations of its events and entertainment jobs, the company is shifting focus on mobilizing for emergency management.

“We will try our best to divert assets to uses outside of the sports industry, primarily in the health care and medical aid sectors," Michael Satrazemis, CEO of Filmwerks said in an email. "This includes temporary structures for hospital use and portable testing stations, including power and air conditioning services if needed."

General Electric's sites remain open and operational, "given the mission-critical work we do for our customers in the power, aviation and health care industries," corporate officials said.

GE has a campus in Wilmington that holds headquarters for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and a manufacturing site for GE Aviation. The campus has around 2,800 employees.

The company is providing guidance to employees regarding health screening, symptoms monitoring, flexible work arrangements and travel restrictions, in parallel with government directives.

It has implemented site emergency medical response plans, and has new workplace protocols to help protect against the virus, including hygiene best practices, and has increased disinfection of common areas.

The company remains in close contact with local, national and global health officials to closely monitor the situation.

"GE’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees. We have implemented safety measures and flexible work arrangements to help protect our employees while also continuing to deliver critical equipment and servicing to our customers and partners,” a GE spokesperson said in an email. “We are in constant communication with employees, customers, suppliers, and governments to maintain business continuity to the best of our ability.”

New Hanover Regional Medical Center is working through a process to offer alternative work environments for staff to support patient care and staff safety, Julian March, NHRMC spokesman, said in an email.

"We’re encouraging all staff to talk with their managers if they’re unable to find childcare while schools are closed," he said. "Our HR team has identified resources in the community to support staff at this time and continues to monitor support needed by our workforce."

Gov Roy Cooper ordered schools, grades K-12 to be closed for two weeks starting Monday in response to the spread of the virus.  

NHRMC’s incident command structure is activated, March said, adding "our responses and plans are rapidly evolving, but we are communicating new information to staff."

NHRMC is one of the top employers in the Wilmington area with more than 7,500 employees.

"Our supply chain leaders are leading efforts to ensure we have all necessary supplies here to care for our community. If we see higher numbers of patients, NHRMC will coordinate with the state of North Carolina to ensure we have all necessary resources available," March said. 

And Corning Inc., which has an optical fiber plant in Wilmington, has crisis response teams responding around the globe, company officials said. 

“We have been executing a high level of precautionary measures in all our offices and facilities. And, we are ensuring our leaders have the right tools and information to continually communicate real-time updates or changes to help keep employees safe and healthy, and to support our families and communities," said Joe Dunning, spokesman for Corning, in an email.

The company is keeping in touch with local authorities for the health and safety of its employees. Corning does not release its local employee count citing competitive reasons. 

"In the meantime, Corning continues to monitor this evolving situation and work closely with our customers and suppliers to strike a balance in meeting their needs and maintaining business continuity," Dunning said.
Corning has been operating in Wilmington for more than 50 years, "thanks in large part to our talented and dedicated workforce," he said.

"We will continue to support our workforce," Dunning said, "and the community today and in the future, just as we have in the past.”

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday to reflect the one presumptive positive case of the coronavirus in New Hanover County.
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