Staying At Work During Arizona's COVID-19 Crisis

By Heather van Blokland
Published: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 9:54am

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Warehouse worker
Front-line workers of manufacturing companies, medical personnel and first responders are just a few of the types of skilled labor that cannot work from home.

Stay-at-home orders don’t apply to all workers. Medical personnel, first responders and front-line workers of manufacturing companies are just a few of the types of skilled labor that cannot work from home. But that doesn’t mean working at the job is business as usual.

COVID-19 for a manufacturing plant means cleaning and disinfecting is a full-time job for someone, anyone, like Justin Bowers, facilities director of Master Electronics, a global distributor of electronics parts. His job is to manage safety and facilities, which have become the same thing recently.

“You know, make sure the restrooms are stocked, clean," he said. "You know, make sure our cafe is functional and ready for employees throughout the day. Right now, we’re working on a massive air conditioning project within the warehouse.”

Bowers' essential job duties have changed over the last several weeks to prioritize the condition of the facility his workers are in over the condition of the facility's equipment — with regard to the coronavirus.

“My life has been completely turned upside down, and safety is now my main objective,” he said.

Bowers works inside the plant that assembles tiny component parts for airplanes, cars, and medical equipment. The work requires human labor to do it, which has been increasingly hard to staff during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If people are not employed, if people are not buying things, that will reduce manufacturing demand. Short term we have some headwind. Long term, I think there could be some benefits and some increase in manufacturing,” said company president Riad Nizam.

The problem is that no one knows how long-term “long-term” is. Arizona is one of the hardest hit states in the country. Over the week of June 30, Arizona reported 55 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people per day. That’s 34% more than the second-worst state, Florida. It’s more than double Texas, another hard-hit state. It’s more than triple the U.S. average.

In 2018, manufacturers in Arizona accounted for about 8% of the total output in the state and employed approximately 6% of the workforce. Computer parts made up the largest segment of the $29.8 billion dollar industry. For workers like Bowers who work on the manufacturing floor, there is no way to do the job remotely.

“We took everybody that was working a typical Monday through Friday, and we spread that across an entire week. And the primary reason for that was for their safety. We wanted to make sure we are minimizing any type of spread should somebody become COVID-positive,” said Bowers.

“We had a case. It was a quick recovery. Nothing serious,” said Nizam, responding to a recent discovery of an employee as COVID-19 positive.

Nizam said his company had been planning for a back-to-normal schedule in July. That is not likely the case now. Instead, he is looking to keep business running using tools that streamline systems, including artificial intelligence — and new funding.

Chris Campbell is a financial strategist at Duff & Phelps. He’s worked in Congress and also for the Trump administration. He spoke about COVID-19 at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and says the pandemic will continue to require a massive lift of government dollars. “Congress has traditionally a way of moving on these cases, typically after the fact. An otherwise free supply chain would be changed, I think, because of Washington’s involvement,” he said.

In May, a group in Congress proposed the Endless Frontier Act to expand funding for tech jobs, including AI-supported manufacturing jobs. They argue that the U.S. was “inadequately prepared” for COVID-19 and that the pandemic “exposed the consequences of a long-term failure” to invest in research. The legislators called for $100 billion over five years to support a “technology directorate” that would fund AI, robotics, automation, advanced manufacturing and other critical technologies.

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