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PRICHARD — With the economy trying to overcome the effects of COVID-19 and the nation’s political unrest, businesses like the Sogefi automobile parts plant in Prichard, West Virginia, face a challenge like never before.

“In the month of May, we didn’t close completely, because we still have to deliver some parts to the after-market and the dealers, but we did downsize from about 350 employees to a total of maybe 80 people,” plant manager Troy Thomas said.

Sogefi is an Italian company with 43 plants in 23 countries supplying auto parts such as engine filters, filtration modules, sensors and valves that control engine temperatures and engine air intake manifolds to Ford, General Motors (GM), Fiat/Chrysler, Toyota, Volkswagen, Subaru and after-market clients.

“Basically what we do is injection molding, welding plastic and assembling of electronic and other devices,” said Thomas, who was the first American worker hired by Sogefi in 2003 when the plant started. “We make about 12 million filters and about 400,000 manifolds per year here.”

Sogefi also makes a part for Mercury Marine outboard boat engines at the plant.

Thomas said the Prichard plant’s production volume dropped to 20% of its normal output due to the pandemic, but as the plant slowly reopens to full volume there are now about 185 workers and production is up to around 60% already in June.

“We are expecting to get to about 70% in July,” he said. “We don’t anticipate in 2020 that the sales will recover to more than about 80% of what they were pre-crisis. We won’t get back to full production until 2021, but that could change. If the economy recovers, unemployment changes and the demand for vehicles improves, we are hopeful to get back to 100% of pre-crisis volume.”

Thomas said there was an initial concern about labor shortages, but it hasn’t been as big of a problem as predicted.

“I think our employees want to work and don’t want to be without a job in this economy and this market right now,” he said. “If we invite someone to return to work and they don’t want to do that, we have to hire another person and train them to do that job. Obviously, months later when the unemployment benefits run out, it wouldn’t be fair to fire that person to bring back the other person. With that rule in place, we have been very successful and very thankful to our employees for returning to work and doing a good job.”

Jeremy Dalton, human resources manager, says some of the plant’s workers have been making more money from unemployment benefits than when they worked, thanks to the $600 a week extra from the federal government.

“It’s an issue that causes contention in the workforce,” Dalton explained.

“We have a certain segment of our workforce that gets angry with us for bringing them back because they feel they are taking a pay cut by coming back.”

Another workforce issue facing the plant is the paid family medical leave benefit under the new CARES Act, which allows workers to take off work for child care issues.

“They get up to 400 hours or two-thirds pay, and we have people taking off two hours at a time,” said Danny Samples, a production manager. “We needed people to work overtime to meet an order, and four people came up and implemented their two hours and we couldn’t run.”

Prior to the pandemic, the medical leave benefit required a doctor’s certification.

“With this CARES Act, you don’t need a doctor’s certification or even a doctor’s note,” Thomas said. “So workers can leave at any moment, which makes planning for labor very hard. It’s a concern for any business, but more so for us. We are making parts that supply engine factories all over the world. So you can image what happens when we don’t ship on time.”

Thomas says it costs the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“So the challenge is how many people do we recall and how many people each day are going to decide to take family medical leave,” he said. “We are not blaming our employees for using that benefit and we are glad they are getting support, but it is a complexity that is new for managing a business.”

Thomas said the Prichard plant, which is Sogefi’s largest in the world, has great and hardworking employees.

“We love them all, and we have taken care of them,” he said. “All of those that did get laid off, we paid 100% of their health insurance during that time. We have also done some creative things regarding shift scheduling when they come back so that if they couldn’t work a full 40 hours a week we were able to work them part time so they could still qualify for some of the unemployment benefits. We have been very flexible to try to keep all our employees happy and safe.”

Ines Garcia, the health, safety and environmental manager, says the company has been following all state and federal pandemic guidelines. Every employee is tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to work.

“We are doing all the things the CDC and Sogefi’s management recommend,” she said. “We are training, testing, taking temperatures daily, staggering lunch breaks so employees don’t gather in larger groups and continue to practice social distancing rules.”

Employees also fill out a questionnaire to identify underlying health concerns and those with potentially high risks.

“We are providing masks, lots of hand sanitizer and have added extra housekeeping to wipe up commonly touched surfaces, like time clocks and door knobs,” Garcia said. “So far it’s keeping us safe.”

On the good news side, Thomas said the Prichard plant has recently obtained new contracts with Volkswagen and Ford.

“We will be supplying Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant with an engine air intake duct,” Thomas said. “It’s a new product for us that will start up this summer. Also, we have won a new contract with Ford of substantial volume to produce another new product, which is cam covers. We are looking forward to getting through this crisis and getting back to full production as soon as we can.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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