COVID-19: One Year Later (Part 1)
Liz Bowden was being very careful. The Duplicating Services manager at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was adhering strictly to all COVID-19 safety precautions, adamant about keeping her family and coworkers safe.
Unfortunately, one of her husband’s coworkers was not as careful. He came to work sick and without a mask, Bowden says, passing the disease to her husband and then to her. Just days after Thanksgiving, her COVID-19 test came back positive. Then her life became truly awful.
She lost her sense of smell, was unable to eat, and endured headaches, nausea, and “brain fog.” She felt fatigued all the time, yet couldn’t fall sleep. Bowden was home sick all but three days in December. Two months later, she still finds it difficult to think straight.
“Things are just off in your brain and your body,” she describes her ongoing symptoms. “Anybody who says this is the flu: it’s not the flu. You can tell, this leaves something behind.”
For Paul Wannigman, Print Services manager at Coborn’s Inc., in St. Cloud, Minn., it was the massive, splitting headaches that drove him out of his mind while he was suffering from COVID-19 in December.
“The fatigue was horrible,” he adds. “Just going up and down stairs was exhausting.”
He would sleep for 18 hours, do a little work, and then have to sleep again. His appetite also disappeared.
“I lost 14 lbs.,” he reveals.
Their suffering was a picnic compared to Larry Mills’ experience, however. The manager of Monument Health Printing Services, in Rapid City, S.D., went into the hospital on August 20 with COVID-19. He was placed on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma. Eight weeks later he opened his eyes to see snow outside his hospital window.
“I still thought I was in mid-August,” he says. “That was an extremely strange feeling.”
Because of his prolonged time in bed, he has had to relearn how to walk, and remains on supplemental oxygen.
“My muscles are getting better, but I can’t walk farther than about 100 yards without having to sit and rest to catch my breath,” says Mills.
The reality of COVID-19 has hit home in the in-plant community.
From Fear to Reality
A year into this pandemic, we are all still wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing, just as we started doing last March. But what’s different now is that COVID-19 has gone from a fear to a reality. Most of us have now witnessed the effects of the disease with our own eyes. We’ve seen friends, family, and coworkers sickened, even killed by it. Fellow managers have suffered its punishing effects.
In-plants have experienced the coronavirus’ impact on their productivity — both in the way it robbed them of work and in how it has altered interactions with fellow employees and customers. Furloughs, staggered shifts, plexiglass partitions, six feet of separation between employees — they’ve all impacted the way work gets done.
At the same time, staffs are experiencing pandemic fatigue; wearing a mask all day is annoying, after all, and sometimes you just need to work right next to someone to get a job done. Despite jarring doses of reality like the three stories mentioned above, after a year of dealing with COVID, it’s easy for employees to become lax about it.
Yet in-plant managers can’t afford to be lax. In addition to their own health, the future of their operations is at stake. Entire in-plants have had to shut down and quarantine in recent months. Managers are stressed over how their own absence will affect the operation if they get sick. They find themselves policing mask wearing and other safety measures, in addition to their official duties.
The Work-From-Home Effect
A year into the pandemic, one of the biggest changes in-plants have learned to deal with is the number of people working remotely — not only customers but the in-plant’s own designers and supervisors.
“We are now on a mandatory work-from-home [order] for all staff that can,” reports State Printer Tim Hendrix. “What that means is that all the office staff and most managers are working remotely.”
“Graphic designers work remotely and send proofs digitally. Office staff alternate working from home and coming in two days a week,” says Terri Bischoff, director of Creative and Print Services at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Ind.
“To avoid a shutdown for a quarantine or positive [COVID test] result, I have continued to work from home so that I can come in and run things if other staff need to quarantine,” adds Tammy Elliott, director of Print Services at The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn. “It’s important to us that we provide a sense of normalcy to our customers by continuing to meet their deadlines and expectations.”
In-plants, like everyone else, have adapted to this new structure and the lack of face-to-face collaboration. The fact that this work-from-home experiment has proven so successful means it will likely continue post-pandemic, now that businesses see they don’t need the traditional office structure going forward. This has consequences for printers.
“I worry that it will eliminate some print because it’s forced [people] to go digital,” notes Chuck Werninger, senior manager of Administrative Services at Houston Independent School District (HISD). Customers have learned to use PDFs as they work from home during the pandemic and may never go back to printing some items, he says.
Bischoff has the same concern.
“The migration to digital formats for jobs that we used to print will increase,” she predicts.
The absence of people from campus has impacted her in-plant in another way too.
“Our copier fleet on campus has been very affected since so many departments are working remotely. Those volumes are way down,” she observes — as is the revenue her shop gets from managing that program.
In addition to having staff work from home, another reason in-plants have fewer employees on-site these days is due to COVID-related layoffs and furloughs. This has come back to bite some in-plants when a big project arrives that requires more people. Document Solutions Director Richard Beto has had to hire temps in such situations at The University of Texas at Austin, to ensure a large job gets out on time and the customer stays happy. But this is not a perfect solution.
“They don’t work as fast,” he points out. He would prefer to offer laid-off employees the work, but knows such short-term assignments will complicate their unemployment benefits.
Layoffs have also impacted equipment service.
“My service quality degraded on my flatbed,” notes Wannigman. The technician who usually services it was furloughed, he says, and the manager sent to handle it in his place was not as skilled.
The Quarantine Impact
Over the past year, exposure to the coronavirus and positive COVID tests have forced employees into quarantine at 28% of in-plants, according to IPI research, impacting production and requiring workarounds. Duke University’s copy center was shut down after the whole staff tested positive. Colorado’s state printing operation closed for two days as a precaution after several staff tested positive.
“We have had some positives and some exposures leading to quarantines,” acknowledges Werninger, adding that he had to go into the shop to run equipment during those times.
“We had only one staff member out of 12 employees test positive in the late summer,” notes Bischoff. “We migrated the work from the press to our digital machines or outsourced if necessary, so no deadlines were impacted.”
Sick employees often require the shop to be emptied for a deep cleaning.
“We’ve had five emergency cleanings,” reveals Bowden, though she’s quick to add, “Nobody has contracted it at work. We’ve stayed vigilant this entire time.” University staff, she adds, are required to be tested twice a week for COVID-19.
Marketing and customer interaction have also taken a hard hit over the past year. Normally, Beto holds showcase events around campus, setting up a table with samples, information, and food to promote the in-plant. Face-to-face opportunities like that are lost, he laments, and he has no way to reach the influx of new university employees hired each year.
Bowden says University of Illinois employees are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and she, for one, is not going to hesitate. While she may have harbored some doubts about the vaccine’s hasty development before she got sick, she is now completely on board with getting her shots.
“I’m not going through this again,” she declares.
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.