As of midnight Friday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered non-essential businesses to close their doors to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But at least some of Duluth’s large manufacturers have no plans to idle their production lines quite yet.
Verso Corp. intends to continue to churn out paper at its Duluth mill with a staff of about 240 workers.
Moline Machinery LLC will continue to manufacture and service commercial bakery equipment, at least on a limited basis, with a reduced staff of 75 people.
Meanwhile, Cirrus Aircraft, which employs more than 1,000 people in Duluth, issued a statement saying that while it had been identified by the state as a critical sector manufacturer, it has decided “to slow down and pause many operations, including manufacturing aircraft, out of concern for the health and welfare of our employees and the stability of our business in these uncertain times.”
Loll Designs also will press pause, ceasing production of its trendy line of outdoor furniture, while its former sister company, Epicurean, already had shut down its kitchenware production line in Superior earlier in the week. Those two businesses each employ more than 60 people.
Manufacturers that have chosen to continue production were quick to justify that decision.
“Our pulp products and stuff like that go into things like packaging for protective masks, grocery bags and pharmaceutical labels,” said Guy Priley, a communications specialist for Verso.
“We are a major equipment manufacturer for the food industry, and that’s as critical as it gets,” said Gary Moline, president of Moline Machinery. “We make the machines that supply everything from McDonald’s biscuits to bread items to many of the things in the frozen food aisle in the supermarket, and we need to keep those people in business.”
Regardless of its importance as a manufacturer, Cirrus announced it will send many of its workers home, beginning Monday. A company memo said: “For the affected team members and their families, we have provided significant benefits, including compensation and health care coverage support during the initial four-week furlough period.”
In the same statement, Cirrus said: “The unprecedented health crisis, uncertainty and economic disruption brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly challenging to continue our operations uninterrupted.”
After consideration, the company stated that “an orderly slow-down of our operations is the right next step.”
Greg Benson, co-founder of Loll and Epicurean, didn’t try to make the case that new lawn furniture or cutting boards were essential products.
But he said the shutdown will hurt, especially as Loll had just relocated into a larger manufacturing space on Waseca Street in February.
“And then of course, this all hit. We were set up to have our biggest year we’ve ever had,” Benson said.
Loll’s sales have held strong, despite the pandemic, with online sales surging as people across the nation increasingly shelter at home. Benson said that heading into the shutdown, the company’s customers already faced about an eight-week wait for many items in its popular furniture line. That backlog will only grow with production now on hold.
As for Epicurean, Benson said the company’s last shipping container of product left the plant Thursday, bound for Japan. It remains unclear when Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers will clear the way for the company to resume operations in Superior.
Cirrus also reported that it had been off to a strong start before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It called the past five years “the strongest in the company’s history,” noting the launch of its SF50 Vision Jet into the marketplace and the continued growth of its SR series piston aircraft. The company attributed its success to its 1,600 dedicated employees working in Duluth, Grand Forks, North Dakota; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Texas.
Benson said he and his partners have struggled with how best to take care of employees during this shutdown of uncertain duration on both sides of the bridge.
“We’re trying to keep people first, and look at how we can help our employees, because when we come back and open up, we’re going to need everybody. At least that’s what I hope,” he said.
Moline acknowledged that the sudden downturn in the economy caught him off guard.
“We’re going to basically go down to parts and service only. All our techs are off the road. We normally have five to 10 people traveling every week somewhere. But that’s all out now,” he said.
While the company intends to fill any standing orders, those are in slim supply for Moline.
“We have a major slowdown here. We just laid off 10 people yesterday — 20% of our factory workforce,” said Moline, noting that this is only the third time in 75 years of business the company has had to cut staff.
“The salaried administrative people will be down to 32 hours starting next week,” he said. “We’re in for a long haul here. Capital projects are stopped. Everybody has told us projects we had on the books that we were going to get are not happening. Projects in-house are delayed. This is going to be severe.”
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