BRISTOL — Several employees of Utilimaster say the truck manufacturer is not doing enough to keep workers safe from COVID-19, which has spread among employees.
Utilimaster confirmed Monday that six employees had tested positive for the virus. On Tuesday, several employees said that number had grown to eight.
Employees from other businesses in Elkhart County have also contacted The Elkhart Truth and shared concerns about their workplace not doing enough to keep employees safe. Those concerns were not corroborated, however.
Three Utilimaster employees, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs but agreeing to share their identity with The Elkhart Truth, said a number of CDC guidelines are not consistently followed at the company.
“Not following 6 feet procedure at all,” one employee said. “We watched HR putting masks in baggies with no gloves on,” one employee said.
That employee said people punch in and out, use door handles and share tools without using gloves, though a second employee said gloves are worn.
“And you don’t see anyone sterilizing doorknobs, tools and benches where everyone works,” the first employee said.
Utilimaster said areas like that are disinfected multiple times a day.
“Just wait your turn and take your chances for $15 an hour, and hope you don’t die or take it to your family and hope they don’t die,” the second employee said.
Safety is top priority
Utilimaster president Chad Heminover said in a written statement that the health and safety of employees is the company’s top priority.
“We are working closely with the Elkhart County Emergency Response Task Force, as well as with the Indiana Health Information Exchange to take appropriate actions in accordance with their guidance and to ensure all employees who may have been affected have been contacted, informed, and will be tested accordingly,” Heminover said.
Elkhart County Emergency Management director Jennifer Tobey said the county’s COVID-19 incident management team is in contact with Utilimaster multiple times a day.
“I’ve reviewed the plans they have in place. We’re working with getting their employees tested as they need to be tested,” she said. “You’re never going to make 100 percent of your employees happy.”
Heminover said in April that staff working closer to each other than 6 feet were supplied with face shields, gloves and painting suits. But that is not always the case, two employees said.
“We wear thin cloth masks they provide,” the first employee said. “A lot of people buy their own PPE because the company supplies minimal protection. The masks are thin T-shirt type of cloth.”
According to Utilimaster spokesperson Samara Hamilton, face shields remain available, and it is up to employees to choose to wear them.
“We certainly ask respectfully that people also contribute to the solution here,” she said.
But that is “not at all” the case, a third employee said. If face shields are available, the second employee said, not everyone is aware of that.
“If they do, no one on my line was told,” the employee said, adding that shields have been available for certain tasks but cannot possibly be used for others, like installing shelves.
“They have not said anything about wearing them for the virus,” the employee said.
Employees were also critical of Utilimaster’s effort to take the temperature of employees.
“They have temp scans set up at the walkway but I myself and several other people have walked by and set it off indicating a fever, and no one was even around to tell us what to do or monitor, so people just ignore it and go on,” the second employee said.
Hamilton said she had doubts about that statement.
“I have a hard time thinking that we would spend tens of thousands of dollars on new safety equipment and then not monitor it,” she said.
Punished for staying home
In cases when employees have tested positive, the facility goes through additional disinfecting protocols, Heminover said. But some employees are concerned that the measures are not enough and want to stay home for the time being.
“If we choose to go home, we get a point,” the third employee said.
Accumulating enough points will result in dismissal, employees said.
Utilimaster did not answer whether that is accurate but said that “per our HR policy, we have a system in place regarding unexcused absences.”
Employees who stay home because they suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19 or exhibit symptoms are encouraged to stay home and will not be penalized, the company said.
The first employee said they also get pointed if they are staying home while waiting for COVID-19 test results to come back if Utilimaster did not make them get tested.
“This is completely ludicrous,” that employee said. “I’m trying to screen myself for me, my family and co-workers, and they want to punish me because Utilimaster didn’t send me.”
Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Levon Johnson said the chamber is seeking clarification from state and federal government officials on when companies can punish employees for staying home due to COVID-19 concerns.
According to the first employee, Utilimaster has told some staff members that they were not exposed to the colleagues who tested positive.
“Who knows who has been exposed, we all share the same breakrooms, bathrooms and are in same trucks together,” the employee said.
‘So close we touch’
Employees said there have been walk-outs from the facility, and that to make up for regular staff staying home, Utilimaster brings in temporary workers.
The second employee said an additional concern comes from not keeping units at the facility separate.
“Yesterday they again shut down our line because we were low on trucks for our side, and tried to cram us all on one line. Four people just putting in shelves in a box truck so close we touch each other,” the employee said.
At some workstations, the company said, employees must work closely together. In those instances, the requirement to wear face masks and safety glasses becomes particularly crucial, and the company has provided sanitization stations to allow increased hand washing, the company said.
Generally, Utilimaster requires that employees stay 6 feet apart, and group gatherings are kept small, the company said. Employees described some gatherings as large and crowded, which one backed up with photographs.
That employee, and at least one other, filed a complaint with IOSHA, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Hamilton said the company has been in contact with IOSHA, which she said had no criticism of Utilimaster’s measures.
According to Heminover, Utilimaster is following CDC guidelines and implementing advanced safety protocols.
“We have increased our facility and equipment sanitization procedures and intervals, increased PPE distribution, continue to enforce social distancing protocols, invested in state-of-the-art technologies to monitor our associates’ health and keep them safe,” he said. “Our associates and the greater Elkhart community can count on us to continue to apply new learnings and protocols toward that effort.”
The company asked employees to voice any concerns they might have.
“We encourage our entire team to voice issues as they arise, so that we may have the opportunity to address their questions and their concerns in a timely manner,” Utilimaster said.
Tobey said companies are adjusting to a new normal, and she understands why some people get worried while that happens.
“You can be concerned because a colleague that you work with tested positive and you possibly live with an elderly person, but I would have to ask, how do you go to the grocery store? Because you are exposing yourself to somebody that you don’t even know,” she said. “Businesses are taking this very seriously.”
And in Utilimaster’s case, she was not concerned.
“The company is aware of the situation, and from what I have seen on my side, they’re going above and beyond to protect their employees,” she said.