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No Socks, But Ice Cream (And Cookie Dough) Manufacturing Continues In Vermont

Two photos, one of an empty parking lot, another of a full one.
Emily Corwin
/
VPR
Above: Burton Corporation's empty parking lot. Below: Rhino Foods' full lot. Manufacturing businesses are taking a wide range of approaches in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Workplaces around Vermont – and the country – are experiencing staggering changes in following directions to hunker down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Office environments are unusually quiet as employees work from home. Many in the service industry have been abruptly laid off.

But what about manufacturing operations that require workers to be physically present to do their jobs?

At Darn Tough Vermont, the Northfield-based sock maker, their knitting machines went silent at 11 p.m. Tuesday night.

"All employees who are currently on payroll are going to be paid in their entirety, with full pay and benefits through next week,” said Darn Tough spokesperson Brooke Kaplan. “And then at that point, we're going to assess and we're going to determine where we are and make further decisions from there."

Kaplan said the company will keep its production line quiet until at least March 27.

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"If we're in a position where we can come back safely, we will,” she said. “If we feel like it's the right decision to extend that, then we'll also make that decision, or some sort of combination."

So, no Vermont-made wool socks right now. But another iconic Green Mountain State company will keep churning out its products for the time being.

"Right now, we want to be able to put ice cream out there for people to be able to have when they want to enjoy it,” said Sean Greenwood, a spokesperson for Ben & Jerry’s.

"Right now, we want to be able to put ice cream out there for people to be able to have when they want to enjoy it." — Sean Greenwood, Ben & Jerry's

While scoop shops are closed, factory tours are suspended and Free Cone Day has been postponed, Greenwood said the company will keep making ice cream at its St. Albans and Waterbury plants.

He added they’ll be checking with their 400 or so employees to make sure no one’s coming in to work sick.

"Ice cream's important to us, but it's not that important,” Greenwood said. “It's certainly secondary to people's health and safety, so right now we're just working with our staff to say, 'You folks can keep a track of your own health, make sure that you are healthy when you're coming to work, and if you're not ...' that we want them to stay home. And then when they are at work, we're just looking to be able to make sure we can ensure safety for all of their fellow employees."

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That means limiting group meetings and implementing new cleaning measures.

Some other companies are also altering their operations. You can still order a Vermont Teddy Bear online, for example. But it’ll be shipped at “a future date,” the Shelburne company says.

Other manufacturers are keeping their lines running for now. Revision Military in Essex Junction is continuing to make protective eyewear. Galvion, which makes military helmets in Newport, is also staying open, but like others, adding new cleaning protocols.

"Our teams are cleaning flat surfaces, they're engaging in hand washing, they're trying to maintain physical distance from each other wherever possible. No one is coming in who's not feeling well." — Lisa Groeneveld, OnLogic

The same goes for OnLogic in South Burlington, which makes durable computers with a small team on its production line.

“Our teams are cleaning flat surfaces, they’re engaging in hand washing, they’re trying to maintain physical distance from each other wherever possible,” said co-founder and board chair Lisa Groeneveld. “No one is coming in who’s not feeling well.”

Two Burlington businesses – neighbor across the street from one another – are taking starkly different approaches.

On one side of Queen City Park Ave, Rhino Foods’ parking lot is completely full. And directly across the street? Burton’s lot is entirely empty.

“So really, Thursday was the last day in the office,” said Justin Worthley, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Burton Corporation. “And people were grabbing their monitors and keyboards and everything else they would need to transition to working from home.”

Burton has 1,000 employees worldwide, 400 of whom work at headquarters in South Burlington. Many of these folks, Worthley said, can do their jobs from home pretty easily.

"We actually already had a lot of employees that were working in a remote, either working from home or in a remote setting. So for many people, this actually isn't that challenging." — Justin Worthley, Burton Corporation

“So, you know, being on Zoom meetings is a regular occurrence for a lot of people,” Worthley said. “We actually already had a lot of employees that were working in a remote, either working from home or in a remote setting. So for many people, this actually isn't that challenging.”

And the few who can’t do their jobs from home? Burton is paying them to stay home, anyway.

Things are pretty different at Rhino Foods, across the street. Rhino makes the cookie dough and brownie bits you find mixed into ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s is one of their clients.

“We are still running our operations and we are having all employees who are able, and who are healthy and feel that they are able to come into work, come into work,” said Caitlin Goss, Director of People and Culture at Rhino Foods.

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Burton and Rhino are both companies that manufacture things. So what’s the difference?

Burton’s products are manufactured mostly in Asia. Their Burlington workforce is largely college-educated, highly paid, and computer-based.

Rhino on the other hand, is manufacturing their products right here in Vermont. They offer $15 an hour minimum for entry level jobs that don’t require a degree. And even so, Goss said, many of Rhino’s employees live paycheck to paycheck.

“At Rhino, we have lots of people from lots of different backgrounds and we're really proud of that,” Goss said. “And so we have just under 40% new Americans. We have people who are in recovery, we have people who are formerly incarcerated and folks with other barriers to access. And so we have a diverse population at Rhino, and many are working towards economic stability as they join Rhino.”

Goss said Rhino is trying hard to protect its workers and offer flexibility, and that staff come through frequently to sanitize surfaces. Everyone there is encouraged to wash their hands often.

" ... we have just under 40% new Americans. We have people who are in recovery, we have people who are formerly incarcerated and folks with other barriers to access. And so we have a diverse population at Rhino, and many are working towards economic stability." — Caitlin Goss, Rhino Foods

Rhino is also paying employees to stay home if they are quarantined or have a confirmed illness. And, Goss said, they aren’t penalizing anyone for missing work, so long as they stay in touch.

“You know, to be able to ensure the health and well-being of our people while also maintaining economic stability for folks is a complicated and evolving balance that we're trying to strike, knowing that so many of our employees depend on their work, to support their families,” she said.

Bruce Sacerdote is an economist at Dartmouth College, and he says low-wage workers are more likely to face pressure to come into work right now. Which, obviously, puts them and their colleagues at greater risk of exposure to coronavirus.

Still, he said, nobody should be judging Rhino Foods.

“You know, the fact that people are trying to keep the food supply going, I greatly respect,” Sacerdote said. “And even though it's a dessert item, I still respect the fact that their workers are, to the best of their ability, trying to get this product to Ben and Jerry’s and other manufacturers so they can get product on the shelves.”

He said it’s on local and state governments to decide if and when to shut business down. And, he added, the federal government may soon agree on relief that could help workers.

Correction 5:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that Rhino Foods and Burton Corporation are located in Burlington, not South Burlington.

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