BARRE — It isn’t business as usual in the local granite industry, but Barre area manufacturers and some of the people they employ are suddenly back in the game after being sidelined by a state-ordered shutdown that, for most, came just as they were ramping up from a seasonal layoff.
Those familiar with the granite industry know COVID-19 more than messed with its predictable rhythm. It wasn’t quite shutting down shopping malls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but if you make monuments for a living, having to stop sawing and sandblasting between March and Memorial Day is in roughly the same neighborhood.
“The timing was brutal,” Paul Bagalio said between state-mandated training sessions with just-recalled employees at one of Spruce Mountain Granites’ two manufacturing plants Monday morning.
Bagalio, who founded the business 20 years ago, said it was briefly having its “best year ever” when concerns about the spread of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus prompted Gov. Phil Scott to order nonessential businesses to suspend operations in mid-March
“Right after the big start up, we shut right back down again,” Bagalio said, noting that put memorial manufacturers in a bit of a bind.
Bagalio said most had just weathered the planned shutdown during which expenses are reduced, but don’t disappear like the revenue does when the manufacturing plants are idle.
“Without shipping, there’s no billing,” he explained, noting that having “five weeks off with no production” wasn’t in his short-term business plan.
Bagalio wasn’t complaining, he was simply explaining why he and other manufacturers were eager to get back to work and more than willing to operate within the guidelines Scott spelled out on Friday. Those guidelines limited the number of employees they could recall and mandated safety training that Bagalio and others received during a pair of sessions held at the Vermont Granite Museum on Friday afternoon.
“We’re all up for the challenge,” he said.
Bagalio said the 12 employees who returned to work on Monday represent about roughly half of his workforce – enough to enable him to restart production in both locations.
“They’re really happy to be back and we’re real happy to have them back, too,” he said.
The head of one of two unions that represents hundreds of workers employed in the local granite industry said that was a fair assessment based on his conversations with manufacturers and feedback from his members.
Matt Peake, business agent for the Granite Cutters Association, said roughly 25% of his unions 325 members had been recalled based on a seniority-based formula that took ability to perform specific jobs into consideration. Many, he said, were itching to return to work, in part because — federal incentive aside — they were earning less staying at home than they would on the job.
“I haven’t had any issues today,” he said. “All of the employees are on board.”
Peake, who has spent an inordinate amount of time the past month assisting his members with issues involving unemployment claims, said the absence of push-back was about more than personal finances for union members.
“A lot of my people just want to feel some normalcy,” he said, expressing confidence in manufacturers’ shared commitment to creating a safe workplace.
Peake said that started with back-to-back seminars with a VOSHA compliance expert on Friday and continued through the weekend.
“I heard from all of them,” he said of manufacturers. “They had a very busy weekend preparing for today.”
Peake said that work involved rounding up masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies and posting signs around their manufacturing plants with safety-related reminders they shared with employees first thing Monday morning.
According to Peake, manufacturers are heavily invested in success and have adopted a “we’re all in this together” approach to making sure workers are safe and their businesses don’t foster the spread of the virus.
“From everything I’ve seen, the industry is holding itself accountable and the employees are on board,” he said. “Nobody wants the state to have to step in and shut things down again.”
You can count Jeff Martell, president of Granite Industries of Vermont, among them.
“I think it’s important that we follow the guidelines the governor laid out,” Martell said after welcoming 10 of his 42 employees back on Monday.
Martell said social distancing isn’t a problem in the L-shaped manufacturing plant that covers roughly 80,000 square feet and includes a separate building. He said five employees are working in one wing of the building, three in the other and two are in the separate building.
The headlines, according to Martell, is that steps have been taken to ensure worker safety and at least some of them are back on the job.
Martell said GIV’s seasonal layoffs was shorter than most other manufacturers and business was really rolling from the end of January until last month.
“We haven’t moved a piece of stone since March 25,” he said.
While area manufacturers will likely be forgiven for failing to deliver finished monuments by Memorial Day this year, Martell said that remains an important day for an industry that was hoping Scott would relax his earlier directive.
Scott’s order affected most, but not all, area granite manufacturers.
Swenson Granite Co. was able to scale back its workforce, but remain in business because granite curbing was deemed essential in a way that granite monuments were not.
Rock of Ages Corp. stopped producing monuments, but requested and received permission to continue operating its industrial products division, which does work for the defense industry.
That left monument manufacturers with shuttered plants and competitors in Georgia and Cold Springs, Minnesota, that weren’t affected by similar orders issued by governors in their states.
Bob Pope, chief operating officer of Rock of Ages and Swenson Granite, said last week the disparate treatment was a source of concern for Barre area manufacturers.
“I think the fear amongst the monumental group is that (their competitors in) the other (granite) producing areas have been deemed ‘essential’ businesses,” Pope said, noting the Barre Granite Association had reached out to the state in hopes of getting some relief.
Pope said steps taken at Swenson’s operation could serve as a blueprint of sorts. The company was working with a much smaller crew than usual and enacted a number of safety-related protocols that have since been adopted by other manufacturers.
Requiring employees to eat at their stations or in their vehicles was one of them.
Peake said that appears to be the new normal as lunch rooms and picnic tables are now off-limits, as are shared refrigerators and microwave ovens.
“The manufacturers are taking this pretty seriously and so are the employees,” Peake said, noting all agreed to sign documents indicating they were willing to abide by the guidelines that were explained to them Monday morning.
Peake said manufacturers have already started fielding their first COVID-related orders and with the concentration of U.S. deaths in the U.S. metropolitan area there will likely be more.
“It makes me sad to say it, but it’s true,” he said.