York-area manufacturer gears up for life, uncertain economy after shutdown

When its doors reopen this month, York County manufacturer Weldon Solutions will be proceeding with caution: The company plans to bring back a portion of its 40 workers at a time. 

“I want to see what it looks like to bring more and more people in,” said Travis Gentzler, Weldon’s president. “I don’t want to bring them all back and realize that I’m not ready from a health and safety standpoint.”

Travis Gentzler is president of Weldon Solutions, a manufacturer in West Manchester Township, York County. The company is preparing to return to work after being shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Managers will have a close eye, for example, on how effectively employees keep their distance from each other and whether any rules need to be modified as workers return to Weldon’s 40,000 square-foot facility in West Manchester Township. Some employees may balk at wearing masks. Others have been asking how the company plans to keep them safe, Gentzler said.

“We’re going to have rules,” Gentzler said. “Some will stick and some will change because they’re not making sense or we need to be more stringent.”

A reopening plan was already in the works at Weldon. But the plan gained more significance on May 15, when the state said York and 11 other counties can move to the so-called yellow phase of the state’s color-coded reopening process. That means the county can ease up on the strictest measures imposed two months ago to contain Covid-19.

The slow pace of the state’s reopening has been frustrating for business owners, and a handful of employers have begun to push back. They are opening ahead of schedule or, in a few cases, refusing to comply with state guidelines for public health and safety. One risk is that the move to yellow will only whet the appetite for further loosening, potentially triggering a resurgence of the pandemic.

“There are some drivers who see yellow and speed up, and that’s what we want to caution against,” said Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance. But, he said, “I do believe the vast majority of Pennsylvanians and the vast majority of business owners do understand the precautions that are necessary. They do care about their employees. They do care about their customers.”

Safety has been a priority at Weldon, but so has economic survival. The employee-owned company manufactures specialized grinders for making precision parts. It was in the middle of three critical orders when the state required non-essential businesses to close in mid-March, Gentzler said.

Armed with letters from customers that said Weldon’s work was part of their essential supply chains, Gentzler asked for a waiver to continue operating. But he was denied, even after appealing to state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill.

After a few weeks, Gentzler said he brought in a few employees to finish up the orders and ship them. Workers stayed far apart and wore protective gear. 

“I was prepared that if we got caught that we’d be shut down, and I did it without taking any risks to my employees,” Gentzler said. “That’s our No. 1 concern until this thing ends, that we’re not putting anyone in harm’s way.”

But he also wants to ensure there is a company for employees to come back to. Buoyed by a Paycheck Protection loan, Weldon has not laid off any employees, a step it tries to avoid anyway as an employee-owned company.

“We sacrifice profit to keep people, even if they’re pushing brooms,” Gentzler said. “We recognize the value of the employees and how hard it is to find good employees.”

Still, the future is murky.

Gentzler said 2020 looked like it would be a decent year, albeit somewhat slower than 2019. The company has backlogged orders to finish when it reopens and it continues to quote projects. But as the economy reawakens, he is expecting sales this year to drop 20% to 30%. He declined to disclose revenue.

“It’s going to be a slow turnaround,” Gentzler said.

Because Weldon is employee-owned, workers understand the financial implications of their actions. That understanding has helped as the company discusses its reopening plans, Gentzler said. He is confident Weldon can operate safely, and it has adequate supplies of protective gear and sanitizer.

The biggest wildcard is human nature and the desire for social interaction. Workers have to communicate at times to do their jobs, Gentzler said. And they will want to catch up after being off the job for so long. But they will be expected to keep their distance all the same.

“I’ve got 40,000 square feet and 40 employees,” he said. “There’s plenty of space here for everybody.”

The other wildcard? Other businesses may not take seriously the precautions that are needed to hold Covid-19 at bay. If a lack of caution reignites the virus’s spread, it could push the county back into a stricter shutdown.

“There’s always that one bad apple that’s going to ruin it for everybody, but that’s the risk that we have to take,” Gentzler said. He said the state should focus on enforcement against non-compliant businesses before taking broader measures that affect employers doing the right thing.

“The government is asking us to trust them,” he said. “They should trust us.”

Joel Berg, editor of BizNewsPA


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