By Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds Waxman
April 15, 2020
Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds Waxman are co-owners of American Roots in Westbrook, Maine.
In 2014, we founded a small apparel company in southern Maine called American Roots. We employ 30 people who speak eight different languages in a union shop represented by the United Steelworkers. All of our textiles are domestically sourced. We’re an American manufacturer, through and through. And until recently we made a great hoodie.
But near the end of last month, Whitney developed the symptoms of covid-19. We share a close workspace with our employees, so we immediately stopped production, briefed the staff and waited for results. The following day, the coronavirus test came back negative, but it became clear that business as usual was over. Our projected revenue for 2020 dropped nearly 70 percent in a matter of days. We sent our staff home for the week while maintaining payroll. Then we thoroughly cleaned our empty factory and weighed our options.
Ultimately, we decided to pivot to the production of personal protective equipment for health-care workers fighting the pandemic.
Upending our business model and retooling our factory quickly wasn’t easy. We’re far more familiar with apparel than with face shields and masks.
But as we brainstormed possible products, another Portland-area manufacturer reached out to us. Flowfold makes wallets and backpacks, but its president of sales, James Morin, had secured an order for face shields based on a design approved by the MaineHealth hospital system.It needed to scale up quickly. We could help with that. Together, we sent 10,000 shields out the door last week.
Getting to that point required us to get creative and to rely on our partnerships with local unions. Not only did we reorganize an entire factory space to build new products in about two weeks, but we also did so while changing the way we work to protect everyone’s health.
We physically spread into empty workspaces in our building and cordoned off areas to make social distancing easier. Workers from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 114 volunteered their time to hang heavy plastic sheeting from the ceilings to serve as barriers between workstations. We sanitize the factory multiple times a day, wiping down essential surfaces in the morning, workstations at lunchtime and the entire factory at the end of the day. Everyone wears masks and gloves at all times. Breaks are staggered so there aren’t too many of us gathered in a room at once.
The factory space is just the start: While we were setting up new workstations, we had to find the supplies we needed to make our new products. Our cotton supplier was ready to go, but we had to hunt for the elastic necessary to hook the masks behind the ears.
Sheet Metal Workers Local 17 in Boston found the aluminum for the masks’ nose brace. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35, which represents our screen printers, has workers available to make sure the masks we produce are marked correctly. And our own sewers, all Steelworkers, are putting all the pieces together after crash courses on each new item’s assembly.
While we’re happy that we’ve been able to rehire our staff and that we might end up doubling our workforce to meet demand, this experience has been very hard on our employees. The process of overhauling our business during a cash crunch forced us to temporarily lay off approximately 80 percent of our staff. Then we asked them to come back to work in the middle of a global pandemic.
We knew they had other options. The latest economic bailout out of Congress has made unemployment a workable option for the next few months. We offered them additional hazard pay, but staying at home certainly would be safer than going in to work with a deadly disease going around. We’re grateful everyone opted to come back.
We miss making those hoodies. For the foreseeable future, though, we’ll make PPE, because we have the capacity to do it, these products will save lives, and it’s the right thing to do as an American company in a time of national crisis, period. And we could be doing more.
The lack of a wider strategy from the highest level in Washington is disappointing, to say the least. Because there’s no plan, there’s no push to surge supplies to where they’re needed. No one is prioritizing hot spots and mapping out the next ones for us. If this were being done, it would allow a company like ours and other American manufacturers to make ourselves responsive to demand in those areas.
Until that leadership emerges, we’ll make our own way, keep our team working and help those who need it most. There are thousands of companies like ours. Let’s get this done as a country.
Read the story at The Washington Post website: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/15/how-our-factory-went-making-hoodies-manufacturing-ppe/