Grand Forks outbreak has other North Dakota plants on alert

Source: By Dave Kolpack, Associated Press • Posted: Tuesday, May 5, 2020

  • The John Deere Electronic Solutions plant in Fargo, N.D., shown on Thursday, April 30, 2020, employs about 750 people and has remained open during the COVID-19 epidemic. A company spokeswoman says “one of the most impactful steps” they've taken is to assure employees they will be paid if they have symptoms of the virus, don’t feel well or believe they could have been exposed. The company offers products and services for agriculture, construction, forestry and turf care. Photo: Dave Kolpack, AP / AP
Photo: Dave Kolpack, AP
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A widespread outbreak of the coronavirus that has shuttered a wind turbine plant in northeastern North Dakota and initiated a massive contact tracing effort has led many of the state’s largest manufacturers to review and relay their safety measures.

No company wants to be the next LM Wind Power.

“All it takes is to see something like that happen in a neighboring business or a business similar to yours and everyone gets a lot more fastidious with control measures,” said Dr. Paul Carson, a public health and infectious disease specialist at North Dakota State University, referring to the spread at the Grand Forks plant.

Officials with two of the state’s largest plants, window and door maker Marvin and agriculture and construction components producer John Deere Electronic Solutions, say there are new rules of the road. And they’re doing more than the standard protocol of proper hygiene, high-tech protective gear, social distancing and stickers that say, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.”

Hallways, entrances, and exits are strictly one-way. Other changes have included temperature checks, unique equipment like “no touch” door openers, liberal leave policies and pay provisions, and an added emphasis on communication between management and workers.

’“The stakes are too high right now,” said Paul Marvin, CEO of Marvin, a century-old Warroad, Minnesota-based company with 6,000 employees in eight states, including 1,300 in the Fargo area. “We want to make people feel comfortable and build trust. It costs you a little money in the short term but it pays dividends in the long run.”

The John Deere Electronic Solutions plant in Fargo employs about 750 people. A company spokeswoman said “one of the most impactful steps” they’ve taken is to assure employees that they will be paid if they have symptoms of the virus, don’t feel well or believe they could have been exposed.

Marvin employees receive paid leave if they are sick and unpaid leave with health benefits if they just don’t feel comfortable going to work. Paul Marvin said employees don’t have to “prove how sick they are” with notes from their doctors. And their jobs will be waiting for them when they return.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has held up a Canada-based potato processing business as the gold standard for protecting employees from the coronavirus, stating that Cavendish Farms plants in North Dakota and elsewhere have not recorded a single COVID-19 case among thousands of workers. The company employs 250 people at its Jamestown plant.

“It has been a family owned-business for decades, taking care of their people,” Burgum said. “They have a culture of safety that has been long established. It’s easy for them to take it up another level.”

Cavendish Farms spokeswoman Mary Keith said the numerous safeguards include infrared cameras to monitor the temperatures of people entering buildings and hundreds of signs in multiple languages placed throughout the plants to make employees aware of social distancing and other guidelines. The company purchased 2,700 plexiglass face shields for all of its operations and has added floor-to-ceiling barriers made of plexiglass or wood, she said.

“We feel that what we did very well is we reacted early and we reacted fast to the risk and escalated our measures,” Keith said, adding that workers awaiting testing or treatment for COVID-19 receive 10 paid days with health benefits.

Meanwhile, the number of infected workers at LM Wind Power stands at about 150 at the Grand Forks plant that employs about 900 people. State and local health officials are undertaking a vigorous contact tracing effort, recruiting dozens of people to help find other COVID-19 cases related to the plant.

Some LM employees have complained publicly about what they believed to be a lack of safety precautions, which the company has denied. Officials with the Department of Labor and Human Rights have not received any complaints from LM employees, according to Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki.

Scott Weislow, Marvin’s director of enterprise risk management, said Marvin had a pandemic blueprint in its library after dealing with the Avian flu and that gave them a head start, he said.

“I think we’re going to see an evolution in business; not just us but everybody,” Weislow said. “Working from home will be more acceptable. Some of these social distancing measures are probably going to stick around and you’re going to see other measures like voice activated lights and voice activated door openers.”

Carson said when it comes to the coronavirus, even the most stringent measures may not be enough to dodge “the luck of the draw.” It only takes one infected person who’s not showing symptoms to start the spread, he said.