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Manufacturing companies work to keep up pace during COVID-19 

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton continued to operate during the pandemic, with workers at the facility following ever-changing health guidelines and others working from home for the first time. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Andrea Pierce operates a machine at Kimball Physics in Wilton, which has continued to operate during the pandemic, with workers at the facility following ever-changing health guidelines and others working from home for the first time. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton continued to operate during the pandemic, with workers at the facility following ever-changing health guidelines and others working from home for the first time. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton continued to operate during the pandemic, with workers at the facility following ever-changing health guidelines and others working from home for the first time. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Kimball Physics in Wilton continued to operate during the pandemic, with workers at the facility following ever-changing health guidelines and others working from home for the first time. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/20/2020 4:14:56 PM

The local manufacturing world has continued to move forward since the COVID-19 pandemic began changing the business landscape in mid-March.

Despite many business industries across the region and state forced to shut down or drastically change in the way they operate, most manufacturers in New Hampshire fell under the guidelines for essential services and were allowed to continue functioning as normal. Although during this time, nothing is like it was prior to COVID-19.

It has meant changes to shift times and how they run, enhanced safety protocols, adjusting meetings that were typically held in groups and overcoming a number of other logistical challenges to keep production on track.

There have been hiccups along the way with trying to find the proper amount of PPE, dealing with quarantined employees and attempting to fill job vacancies needed now more than ever.

But despite the challenges, companies like Monadnock Paper Mills and Kimball Physics have navigated the uncertain world.

The last few months

“I will tell you it’s a brave new world for everybody,” said Bill Peterson, vice president human resources at Monadnock Paper Mills.

Peterson said it “was a Herculean effort” to get those who could work from home the ability to do so. Some needed help with better internet service, others needed company cell phones and it took time to get everything up and operational.

“How do you make sure everyone is still connected?’ he said was the biggest question.

While it has been challenging, Peterson said all the new measures put in place have been eased by the commitment from the employees.

“Our employees have been absolutely fantastic,” he said.

Abigail LePage, CEO and President of Kimball Physics in Wilton, said anyone that could work from home was asked to do so back in March, and it was a scramble to get employees set up with access to work remotely.

“Getting used to virtual meetings instead of face to face took some time to get used to,” she said. “We have had to get used to scheduling more formal meetings since discussions don’t just happen on an impromptu basis anymore.”

Production

LePage said production has remained in full operation right along.

“We talked with our production teams and discussed the idea of splitting shifts or alternating days, but our facility is spread out in multiple buildings and we were able to either space out work stations or add physical barriers,” she said. “All of our team wanted to be able to come into work and started mask wearing for added safety as needed.”

She said customer demand has remained normal, but in some cases have been pushed to have longer lead times due to suppliers slowing down. When possible, LePage said, they will use in house resources to compensate for any delays.

One product Kimball manufactures is electron sources, which are used in scanning electron microscopes that are critical for studying viruses.

Peterson said Monadnock Paper Mills was off to a very good year through the early part of March, but like a lot of industries that make specialty products, things have changed. Items like wedding invitations and gift cards aren’t exactly flying off the shelves; Peterson said that a number of large customers “just packed up and went home.”

“We’ve had some good weeks and some not-so-good weeks,” he said. “So it’s a lot of face time with employees, letting them know we’re going to be okay.”

Paper made for medical grades has stayed consistent, and overall Peterson said, there hasn’t been a time where production has not filled the typical shifts. But it hasn’t been easy.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years and this has been one of the most stressful times,” he said.

He said they have been told that a tiny piece of Monadnock Paper Mills paper is used in every swab packaging for COVID-19 tests.

With some production lines slower than others, Peterson said a big focus has been looking for new products with an emphasis on product development.

Employment

Peterson said one employee had to take time off due to a childcare issue, but has since returned, and another who had concerns about working as it pertained to a family member they were caring for.

He said that there are typically entry level positions open all the time, and the problem Peterson is faced with current openings is that his pool of resumes has all but dried up.

“I still have a stack, but it’s getting people to call me back,” he said.

In recent years, Peterson said they have seen about 65 percent of the workforce retire or move on, some with three to four decades of experience.

LePage said they have not conducted any layoffs, and have actually been hiring, trying some new remote techniques for interviewing and taking prospective hires on virtual tours. Kimball Physics currently has 65 employees with three new hires starting in the next month.

Earlier this month, Karen Tiano, company spokesperson for MilliporeSigma, said the company had 75 job openings in Jaffrey and plan to hire at least an additional 120 positions to support growth plans.

Protocols

Peterson said that there have been no positive COVID-19 cases, but some employees have quarantined for various reasons.

Prior to entering the building, all Monadnock Paper Mills employees are asked five questions and have their temperature taken. Each person is given a mask to use each day when social distancing is not possible.

Personally, Peterson said there is a worry. At the age of 63 and someone who had a stroke, he realizes there is risk.

“In the back of mind, there’s always worry,” he said.

The company set it up so employees could get tested if they felt it was necessary and had two cloth masks made for every employee when masks were almost impossible to come by.

LePage said Kimball Physics followed changing guidelines on a week by week, if not day to day basis, and implemented protocols for physical distancing, hand washing, health screening, sanitizing commonly touched surfaces multiple times a day and mask wearing when six foot distances were not possible. So far there have been no positive cases for COVID-19, LePage said.

“All I can say is our amazing team has been completely supportive of all the new procedures. They have stepped up and volunteered to do the morning health screenings and they all share in the sanitizing schedules. It does help that our industry already uses clean practices, so many of the added procedures were not that much of a change,” she said.

Looking ahead

As things opened back up, Peterson said they saw a substantial increase in product demand.

“We hope that we can sustain that,” Peterson said.

But with things still so uncertain, Peterson isn’t ready to relax.

“It certainly takes the wind out of your sails,” he said.

As she looks to the future, LePage said “we were a little behind in thinking about options for working from home. Honestly, this pandemic pushed us in a direction we should have been headed in anyway… Remote work has changed the way we look at working together and we plan to utilize this moving forward.”




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