While industrial manufacturers, including 3M, speed up production of N95 masks for medical professionals, many designers and apparel companies are also pivoting to making masks and gowns to meet increasing public demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
For those companies and their workers, the opening of factories to temporarily make protective gear instead of clothing can offer a legitimate lifeline to avoid extended shutdowns and layoffs. But it also raises new concerns about the safety of clothing factory employees — both to prevent the spread of the disease on factory floors, and also to support workers if they fall ill, labor experts and advocates said.
“Companies need to think about the layout of their physical space — how close are workers to one another, how much physical contact do they have to have with each other, and how are surfaces being cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis?” said Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and a member of the firm’s civil rights and employment practice group, who represents retail employees, including at Walmart and Sterling Jewelers.
“It is inevitable in these settings that workers will get sick,” she said. “Then the question is, what kind of hazard pay and paid sick leave are companies putting into place for these workers for doing this important work of making masks?”
In recent weeks, a number of fashion and apparel brands including Prada, HanesBrands, Los Angeles Apparel and Brooks Brothers have signaled a move toward producing masks and protective gear, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.
In March, Brooks Brothers said it would deploy its New York, North Carolina and Massachusetts facilities to produce masks and gowns, which it said could bring some 500 employees back to work. The company, like many others in the last month, had furloughed its workers after having to shut down stores because of the pandemic. The company expects to start mask production next week, according to its spokesman.
The ongoing discussions between Brooks Brothers and its worker representatives to address safety can offer a template for what those conversations involve.
“Ensuring the safety of our associates continues to be our top priority,” the spokesman said. “We have had ongoing, direct discussions with the unions for all three facilities. We have reviewed our safety protocols with them and all parties are aligned.”
The company has said it is taking several steps, including deep-cleaning factory surfaces, with dedicated maintenance staff responsible for wiping and sanitizing common areas, door handles, the production floor, cafeteria and other spaces.
Brooks Brothers has also said it would provide cleaning products approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; provide workers making masks with protective gear, including masks and gloves; reconfigure factory floors to meet social distancing requirements that keep workers at least six feet apart from each other, and implement temperature testing, among other measures.
The company will also “limit the total numbers of working associates in order to insure stringent safety measures including social distancing,” the spokesman said.
A number of Brooks Brothers workers continue discussions with company management, including tailors, seamstresses and cutters who would be making the masks and gowns where they had been making ties and performing clothing alterations. The Workers United New York/New Jersey Regional Joint Board, the union representing some 150 workers at the Brooks Brothers’ alterations shop and tie shop in Long Island City in Queens, has taken on some of those issues.
“On the one hand, it’s a good thing to do, and the right thing to help the situation,” said Fred Kaplan, secretary-treasurer at the union, referring to the work of producing masks and protective gear. “On the other, I’d be very concerned about their personal safety. I try to put myself in a member’s position — no matter how much you get paid, your life and your health are what comes first.”
Workers United has asked for some additional protections for workers, Kaplan said, including a proposal that this mask-production work be set for a limited period of 30 days, subject to renewal upon mutual consent by workers and Brooks Brothers. They have also asked for Brooks Brothers to contribute the full cost of health insurance for these workers, waiving the portion of the contribution that employees usually have to make.
The company has made it voluntary to work on mask production, but Kaplan said the union has also asked it to guarantee that if a worker turns down that work, they would not waive their right to be called back when Brooks Brothers resumes its normal production.
Labor experts describe such safety measures as essential steps to safeguard public health, and to appropriately treat workers being called on to perform vital work for hourly wages.
“This could become a good way for workers to feel valued as first responders and get involved with the production of [personal protective equipment] and it gives them a sense of dignity that they are also doing something to save lives,” said Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, professor for the Labor and Workplace Studies Program at UCLA, and a longtime immigrant rights and labor activist.
“For garment workers, including undocumented workers making PPE, we need to make sure this comes with protection, health and safety protection and protection against wage theft,” he said. “If they are going to be saving people’s lives, we should be treating them with dignity.”