In early March, as the coronavirus spread into Pennsylvania, Wolfgang Confectioners beefed up its already strict regimen for sanitation and cleaning.
“People are constantly washing their hands. We have uniform changes on a regular basis, so there’s a lot of things that we do … that help prevent the spread of any disease or bacteria,” said Sarah Lanphier, business development director for the North York-based candy maker.
The company employs about 300 people between its North York and Loganville plants, where it makes candy under contract for other firms, including The Hershey Co. Production lines continued churning out sweets following state orders closing all non-essential businesses, then all non-life-sustaining businesses. But the wording of the orders generated confusion, Lanphier said.
A state-issued spreadsheet made it clear that food manufacturers like Wolfgang could stay open, she said. But, she added in an interview March 20: “It’s still confusing to the general public. There are a lot of people that work for us that were very confused also. There were a lot of phone calls last night just to clarify.”
The biggest challenge has been employees with children who are out of school or unable to attend daycare. Public schools in Pennsylvania are closed at least until April 6.
“If there’s no one there to take care of their kids, they have to stay home,” Lanphier said, noting that the company is working to accommodate employees, for example, by allowing them to switch shifts if possible.
Manufacturing jobs can’t be done remotely. That also applies to Wolfgang’s office staff of between 10 and 15 people. While they are able to do some work from home, some of their work has to take place at the plants, Lanphier said. “Our company is not fully electronic, so there are some things that from a paper-processing standpoint, you have to be on site to do.”
The company had been looking to hire before the coronavirus pandemic. And those plans are not on hold, Lanphier said. The company could hire up to 30 people.
Most companies in the food supply chain are in the same spot. Supermarkets, delivery companies and big-box stores like Walmart are looking to hire thousands of people even as other companies are laying off workers or shutting their doors entirely.
It’s unclear yet how the upheaval will affect the labor market, which had been tight the last few years. Manufacturers had been struggling to find skilled workers and stepping up recruitment efforts.
“Obviously the past week has just completely changed a lot of things and nobody knows what’s going to happen when everything, quote unquote, goes back to normal,” Lanphier said.
It’s not even clear when normalcy will return.
“I think it’s all going to depend on the spike and the flattening of the curve,” said Lanphier, referring to the rate at which people become infected by the coronavirus. The goal of public health officials is to slow the rate, referred to as flattening the curve. “We will know over the next two to three weeks what that spike looks like and that’s really going to determine how long it lasts,” Lanphier said.
— By Joel Berg, editor of BizNewsPA