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Employees at “essential” businesses are safer at home, on edge at work

Workers around Dane County say that companies are falling short on safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workers around Dane County say that companies are falling short on safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: Management at MPI Products in Deerfield turned off water fountains at the facility.

This report is based on worker testimony, as well as documents and photos obtained from workplaces in Southern Wisconsin. Many of the sources interviewed, concerned about the possibility of retaliation, spoke on the condition of anonymity. All sources were corroborated by independent accounts of their workplaces. Many provided photos, two of which are provided here. If you have a tip about how local workplaces are handling the pandemic, you can email me. This story may be updated later as we receive more information.

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When Wisconsin issued a lockdown on business and a general mandate to not leave the home except to make “essential” trips (to the grocery store or for medicine), the streets got quieter than they’d been even a week before. People who can work remotely stay home, and public convergences have been restricted to grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals. Governor Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” policy even requires social distancing outside. 

The “Safer at Home” policy, which is designed to slow the spread of the virus, has virtually eliminated public gatherings and shuttered bars, restaurants, and other enterprises in the business of social life. But beyond the quarters of our neighborhoods and typically high-traffic commercial hubs—now starkly quiet—warehouses, manufacturing centers, and some offices remain open. In many cases, workers report that social distancing is challenging—even impossible—given the workspace available. 

“We’re at stations, and there’s a belt in between us, but would we all get six feet apart? Not necessarily,” says an employee at the Duluth Trading Company’s returns center in Verona, Wisconsin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

Duluth Trading Company, based in Belleville, counts among the businesses that have remained partially operational during the coronavirus. While its retail outlets shut down entirely following Governor Evers’ order last week, employees in the clothing and gear company’s distribution and returns centers (located in Belleville and Verona, respectively) still report to work. Staff in both locations independently confirmed that while some precautions had been enacted—such as maintaining a staggered line to clock in and out—by virtue of being in an enclosed warehouse, it is difficult to ensure people on the shop floor stay the recommended six feet from one another. 


Duluth Trading Company’s distribution center in Belleville.

Duluth Trading Company’s distribution center in Belleville.

Because distribution and storage facilities are classified as “essential infrastructure” under Wisconsin’s Essential Business Declaration, the Duluth Trading Company warehouses are not required by law to close. 

MPI Products, a company that manufactures parts for construction and auto companies, likewise fits within the governor’s “essential business declaration” and remains operational. Workers at MPI’s facility in Deerfield, about 20 miles east of Madison, reported that they were “elbow-to-elbow” on the shop floor, and said that drinking fountains had been turned off across the facility. 

Mark Semer, spokesperson for MPI’s parent company Turnspire Capital Partners, provided a statement in response: “One of the first steps taken with respect to COVID-19 was to shut down water fountains. Given the precautions we are all being asked to take to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, public water fountains should not be used. Employees have been encouraged to bring their own water or other drinks in a bottle or jug. Leadership of the Deerfield facility has also taken numerous steps to enable proper social distancing for employees. If the clearly articulated procedures are followed, social distancing is fully possible in the facilities. It is simply not true that that social distancing is impossible.” (Neither the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance recommending that employers shut down drinking fountains.) 

While the two employees on the floor at MPI worried about the possibility of the virus spreading there, workers at CUNA Mutual Group, an insurance company based on the west side of Madison, are already confronting that reality. Multiple employees at CUNA Mutual have tested positive for COVID-19, Phillip Tschudy, a company spokesperson, confirmed on March 30. And while most full-time CUNA Mutual employees have shifted to work from home, contractors and a handful of full-time employees have been reporting to work at the company’s campus on Mineral Point Road. 

Given the spread of the virus, OPEIU-39, the union representing full-time employees at CUNA Mutual, has put forth a set of demands for workers in all positions at the company, regardless of union membership. The union local circulated a petition demanding additional sick time for workers diagnosed with COVID-19; paid time off for workers tending to ill family members; no layoffs during the pandemic, and no penalties for COVID-related absences. 

“We are asking for . . . more than what the employees have already accrued in their time off weeks, and then additional pay for if you have to care for your children because their school is closed or their daycare is closed,” says Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill, president of OPEIU Local 39. 

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“The employer is kind of putting the wall up, they’re saying ‘well, you know, they have time off in their time-off bank,’” Bartlett-Mulvihill says. “That’s okay if you’ve been there for 10 or 15 years, you may have some significant time. But most of our members are fairly new to the company, five years and under. . .and they don’t have that kind of time. And that’s where we’re running into a wall with the company. At this point, they are unwilling to bargain. We have given them a proposal, they rejected it in full. They’re at risk for bad-faith bargaining and they know that.”

Regarding negotiations with the union, CUNA Mutual spokesperson Tschudy wrote in a statement that the company had “had discussions with the union about additional sick leave that could be used in connection with COVID-19. Unfortunately, at this time we have not yet been able to reach an agreement that allows the company to provide that additional leave.” 

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