An online petition is calling for Walker County’s largest manufacturer to shut down while the coronavirus pandemic is raging.
Roper Corp., a subsidiary of GE Appliances, a Haier company, manufactures ranges, wall ovens and cooktops under the GE Appliances, Profile, Monogram, and Café brands at its plant in LaFayette.
Laura DeLay started petition on change.org, which stated “Human lives matter more than ranges!!!”
The plant is taking employees’ temperatures before they clock in, but some employees are concerned about their potential exposure to the contagion during that period, particularly when three employees have been sent home with a fever, an employee who asked to remain anonymous said Friday.
During Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield’s online meeting March 26, he said representatives from Roper, the largest employers in the county, shared with him their proactive steps to combat the virus so that the contagion does not shut down their entire operations. He praised Roper’s efforts, including cleaning and sanitizing the plant.
Many citizens disagree.
By 10 a.m. on Monday, April 6, the petition had garnered 1,764 signatures.
Another employee, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted this newspaper April 1 to report that all lines are working at Roper, and third shift employees have come in on first shift to fill in for absent employees and to wipe down.
According to the petition, 2,000 employees work at the plant, and most work less than six feet apart. Despite adding “plastic Saran Wrap between some jobs,” working conditions are still unsafe.
The petition, as well as those who have commented on it, assert that Roper’s essential personal protective equipment would be better used by donating it to local hospitals and nursing homes, rather than handing out 2,000 masks daily to employees who are performing non-essential jobs during a national emergency. State health officials Monday morning, April 6, confirmed three cases of the virus and no deaths in Walker County.
Writing in the petition’s comments, Brandon Wilson likened the plant’s safety measure to a joke, saying “the masks being prepared for the workers are being handled by people not wearing masks or gloves. Roper needs to make the right decision because it’s not a matter of if the virus will come to Roper but when.”
Other petition commenters urged the government to step in and close the plant.
“Every non-essential business left open is putting our healthcare workers, whom are essential, at an increased risk,” Melissa Payton wrote. “Are ranges essential? If other business are forced to close because of close proximity of persons, why is Roper different? Why are many large plants different? If we can’t even attend church, why are these large manufacturing plants left open to become breeding grounds? Unless these places are modifying to manufacture an essential product, shouldn’t they too fall under the same mandates?”
As local governments and hospitals consider potential locations where they could set up triage locations or store equipment if needed, Lisa Walker wrote that Roper could use the plant to store medical equipment the government is asking to be stored.
The closures of daycares and schools have left many employees without child care, and many employees are either at higher risk of contracting the virus themselves or fear they carry the virus home to someone else who at risk, the petition explains.
Employees who are out sick or stay home to care for their children shoulder that financial burden alone as Roper’s human relations department is not helping, according the petition. “They are faced with working and risking getting sick or not working with no pay unless Roper will shut down” and allow employees to draw unemployment.
“This affects more than just Roper employees,” Brandi Stowe wrote on the petition comments. “It is our duty as citizens to try and adhere to the guidelines put forth by our leadership in national and local government. These things put in place by Roper and the way people still fail to heed guidelines waiting to get inside the plant are not going to help slow the spread. Not running the plant is more effective to the situation.”
One Roper employee dismissed the petition as attempt to be paid for not working. He said he and the vast majority of employees are upset that the petition organizer’s efforts affect their income because a lot of them live paycheck-to-paycheck and do not know how they would pay bills and buy food until they could begin drawing unemployment.
Wendy Treinen, GE brand and product communications director, in an emailed response to newspaper questions, explained steps the company has taken already and wrote that GE will continue to work on ways to ensure employee peace of mind in collaboration with its teams during this ever-changing situation.
“Our plants are open and operational as the Dept. of Homeland Security has defined us as an essential need for the U.S. As such, our employee travel to work and home is covered,” she explained.
“At a time when nearly 270 million Americans are sheltering in place, GE Appliances has an essential mission of helping families keep their homes safe and sanitary — free from germs through washing clothes and dishes, equipped with refrigeration products to store the food they need, and ensuring they can cook meals for their families,” Treinen wrote.
“Our consumers count on us to fix their appliances if they break and to have them available if they need to buy a new one. We are dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our workforce,” she responded. “We closed our manufacturing facilities for an entire week, and before reopening, the company worked tirelessly to implement no-touch temperature screenings, adjusted lines for social distancing, installed barriers between work stations, provided protective equipment, and installed handwashing and hand sanitizer stations throughout each of our the plants.”
Treinen wrote, “Our safety precautions are dynamic, and we continue to take additional measures as we hear feedback from employees and implement any changes requested from public health officials. The health and safety of our employees come first.
“We understand that the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 leads to deep concerns across our operations. It is an emotional time for the world as we come together and try to adapt. We are grateful to our production teams for the work they do.”