Factory workers left without paid leave by federal COVID-19 bill

Vermilion County

DANVILLE, Ill. — Like many states across the nation, Illinois has shut down all public schools and non-essential businesses. Many parents who work in industries deemed essential by the state, such as manufacturing, are now seeking childcare options with their kids out of school.

Tim Miller is President of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 686, which represents workers at the Danville Viscofan manufacturing plant. He said “a lot of people are upset” with the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) because companies or corporations with more than 500 employees are exempt from being required to pay their employees for any type of leave.

He said that with schools out this week, “a lot of people made arrangements because they knew it would be spring break.

“Come Monday, everyone would have been back to school and now everyone is scrambling to find someone who can watch their kids. This could require a lot of our people to request leave, and then it’s going to be unpaid. A lot of single parents are saying ‘I can’t afford to take one week or two weeks off without pay.’ Even married couples are saying the same thing.”

Tim Miller, UFCW Local 686 President.

The FFCRA requires companies to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to businesses with less than 500 employees, and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave. Those who have children and work in those larger firms, especially single parents, are most affected.

“We do have a lot of single parents,” Miller said. “There a lot of married couples feeling like they’re going to be stretched thin too, because both the husband and the wife have jobs.”

According to Miller, the plant in Danville has about 350 employees. Viscofan also has manufacturing facilities in Montgomery, Alabama and Kentland, Indiana. He said the combined workforce of all locations does exceed 500.

“We were hoping with the (FFRCA), we thought it would only be ruled by location and then our people would qualify,” Miller said. “The way the ruling reads, within the United States, because Viscofan has a couple places, it’s all lumped together.

“This came out from the Department of Labor. This is not our decision, this is coming from them.”

Currently, their workers can request time off under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. So if an employee gets sick, or needs to stay home to care for a family member, Miller said their only way to receive paid time off is by using vacation time. Otherwise, they can take a certain amount of unpaid leave and it will not affect their attendance score.

“We normally don’t have many people requesting a leave of absence.” 

According to Miller, Viscofan employees with less than one year’s experience at the company get only one week of vacation time. That goes up to two weeks after the first year, and then goes up to three weeks after eight years.

“Not many that are getting more than three weeks,” Miller said.

So Miller said their company will work with them and “do the best they can.” Yet, they still can’t get paid leave without using vacation time.

“We have requested to see if there’s something (Viscofan) can do to help people out,” he said. “When the (state) government announced the stay-at-home order last week and that only essential business would be open, a lot of business in Danville offered their employees wage increases and gave them bonuses. 

Earlier this week, Miller said the company was still looking into the matter. A decision could be made Friday, he added.

He also said that he cannot dispute Viscofan’s efforts to protect their workers from COVID-19. Like other companies, Miller said Viscofan is struggling to get the necessary supplies, like face masks and hand sanitizer. However, they are also doing what they can to create their own, such as buying their own products to create disinfectant sprays on their own.

Viscofan is also encouraging employees to wash their hands as much as possible, according to Miller, and they have signs for that posted everywhere. They are even enforcing social distancing rules during lunchtime: only one person is allowed to sit at each table in the break room.

Still, Miller said everybody there is concerned about contracting COVID-19. “With people walking around in fairly close proximity to each,” he said, “sometimes you’re right up on someone and you can’t help it. It’s part of your job.”

As for Viscofan, which produces casing products for the food industry, business is definitely booming. Miller said in conversations in upper management, he’s heard that their product is “flying out of here as fast as we can make.”

So to Miller, they are an essential manufacturing plant. “If we close, it’s going to hurt.

“If we are indeed essential, we can only hope that the company will show us and reward those who come to work during this crisis,” Miller said in an email statement to WCIA. “We do understand this is not a permanent offer. We are just asking them to do the right thing for their employees.”

WCIA contacted Viscofan via email Friday about noon, and they did not respond to a request for an interview.

Mark Denzler, President and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturing Association, said they survey their members every week on a host of items. While he couldn’t speak about specific companies, he said there are manufactures that are providing paid time off and sick time for their employees.

“I’m so proud of the manufactures that are stepping up to provide medical equipment and making sure food supplies are being met, and are helping the country deal with the pandemic,” Denzler said. He added, “First and foremost manufacturers are concerned about the safety of their workers.

“They’re taking all appropriate steps and are making sure factory surfaces are clean.”

He also said some larger companies have started offering daycare services at their facilities, and a number of them are also catering lunches so their workers don’t have to go out and risk exposure to the virus.

“A lot of manufacturers are stepping up and doing up things to make it easier for the men and women on factories floors.”

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