Leaders of a Dubuque-based furniture manufacturer on Tuesday announced plans to lay off some employees and temporarily cease operations at a local plant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move underscores the impact COVID-19, a new, potentially deadly strain of coronavirus, is having on manufacturing companies across the tri-states.
Flexsteel Industries will begin a two-week shutdown at its Seippel Road facility on Friday, March 27. A temporary layoff at its corporate headquarters also was announced Tuesday.
In a press release, the company said the shutdown is “in response to the impact of COVID-19 on the business.” Specifically, the decision is tied to “a drop in demand for the furniture (the company) produces for recreational vehicle manufacturers.”
The company also cited efforts to enhance safety at its facilities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt many industries, the capital markets and American workers across the country,” the media release said. “While no one can fully anticipate the ultimate impact of the pandemic, Flexsteel is taking steps to protect the health and safety of its employees, as well as the long-term viability of the company.”
The announcement wasn’t a shock to the plant employees, including production worker Greg Laufenberg.
He noted that Flexsteel does extensive work with RV manufacturers in Indiana. A stay-at-home order issued earlier this week in that state represented a temporary nail-in-the-coffin for Flexsteel operations.
“The schedule had already begun to slow down, and when we saw the news out of Indiana, we figured it was only a matter of time,” Laufenberg said.
Laufenberg is a union steward for Local 1861 of the United Steelworkers, the union representing the majority of Flexsteel production workers.
He acknowledged that some employees were “on edge” about the spread of COVID-19, and he said the temporary shutdown was “probably a good idea.”
“I am hoping the shutdown is only two weeks,” he said. “Hopefully, we can come together and beat this thing. In order to do that, we have to get a hold of it and get that curve to slow down.”
The company has about 150 production workers at its Seippel Road facility. An additional 200 workers are split between the company headquarters on Bell Street and the Seippel Road facility.
It was unclear how many corporate employees would be affected by the temporary layoff. CEO Jerry Dittmer did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Flexsteel is far from the only manufacturer feeling the impacts of COVID-19.
Jennifer Hartmann, director of strategic public relations at Deere & Co., said safety mandates and supply chain disruptions have led to temporary or partial suspension at Deere facilities in Asia, Europe and South America.
However, production is continuing at U.S. facilities, including John Deere Dubuque Works. Hartmann said Deere is considered “essential” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and could continue operations even in the event of a shelter-in-place order in Iowa.
In February, long before the severity of COVID-19 hit home in the U.S., Deere officials confirmed that 105 employees of John Deere Dubuque Works will be laid off effective April 6.
Hartmann said the company has not instituted additional layoffs in Dubuque. However, she acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding the virus are constantly evolving.
“This (COVID-19) situation changes every second,” she said.
Hartmann said company employees are practicing social distancing in meetings, common areas, cafeterias and other areas. The company also has closed on-site fitness centers, restricted domestic and international air travel and evaluated alternative production methods.
Striking the proper balance between meeting customer needs and ensuring safety can be difficult.
“I think it is a challenge for all manufacturing facilities that are trying to continue their work but also make sure they are protecting employees,” Hartmann said.