COVID Hitting In-plants Hard: Where’s the Appreciation?
In-plant employees are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Press and bindery operators and other workers are reporting for duty in their shops daily, working side by side while the Omicron variant rages – and getting sick in record numbers.
“We had nine out in one week, essentially shutting down our bindery,” reports Richard Beto, Document Solutions director at The University of Texas at Austin. “Only one was out on vacation.”
Yet elsewhere at the universities and companies served by these in-plants, office employees are working from home, their COVID exposure greatly reduced. After two years of COVID, and with a more infectious variant circulating, how are parent organizations acknowledging the risk these dedicated in-plant employees are taking in service of the organization? Not very well.
“They have done nothing here for my staff who work tirelessly – and performed impossible tasks,” says one California university manager.
Around the country, remote workers have been equipped by their parent organizations with chairs and monitors so they can do their jobs at home, but for those commuting to work to provide essential services like printing and mailing, the spending has not been as free. Early bonuses and hazard pay have tapered off. Upper management seems content to offer general “keep up the good work” messages to staff. And meanwhile, the stress is building for in-plant employees.
“Many staff members have multigenerational families living under one roof,” notes Beto. “The concern of getting sick and taking a virus home adds to the stress level of those employees.” Fatigue is building, he says. “People get tired, and production slows.”
“It is so far beyond frustrating and difficult to remain optimistic while trying to rebound … let alone deal with the mental stress of which crew member will get it next -- or again,” remarks Liz Bowden, assistant director of Document Services & Campus Mail at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“They are tired, and I am sure feel under-appreciated from upper management,” adds Donna Horbelt, director of Repro Graphics at the University of California – Davis.
At the same time, there’s a sense that remote employees are favored. They don’t have to commute and often work flexible hours. Organizations ponder ways to support those employees and make them feel a part of the team, but give no such thoughts to the teams of onsite workers.
“Last week I found an entire website set up to support and train those working remotely,” says Bowden. “I kept searching, looking for something related to those who’s positions cannot be done remotely.”
She came up empty.
“Those who have been working from home have effectively been given raises, and yet there has been nothing for those onsite,” she adds.
“The savings alone for the remote workers is high financially – no travel expense, lunches, clothing, child care in some instances, etc. And the time savings are even greater,” says Horbelt.
The flexible schedule of remote workers impacts in-plants, too, often making those employees unavailable when the in-plant is waiting for files or answers.
“We are continually seeing delays for items needed from other departments that are working remote,” notes Horbelt. “Remote worker hours are all over the place, as they get to pick and choose when they work.”
“Reaching out to others who are remotely working and support you is slow and cumbersome,” agrees Beto. “Some are not immediately available, and phone information isn’t up to date.”
Remote employees order rush jobs, which in-plants diligently produce, only to see them sit for weeks waiting for pickup.
“We had plenty of ‘rush’ jobs that sat in the print shop for a year or so, as none would come on campus,” says Steve Barrett, production manager of SeaPrint Graphic Solutions at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington.
To be fair, some organizations have rewarded their in-plants in small ways over the past two years. Some have provided additional paid leave (though many in-plant workers were never able to take it). One gave essential employees a one-time $400 hazard pay bonus (back in 2020). With the advent of Omicron, some organizations are making a point of providing test kits and better facemasks to their onsite essential workers (though at some colleges and universities, remote staff and students have received upgraded masks before those onsite got them).
Many organizations rewarded every employee equally, whether onsite or remote, sometimes with gift cards, sometimes with bonuses. Employees in the North Carolina State University system, for example, received a $1,500 bonus and a 5% pay increase over two years, which Barrett says “takes away the sour face of this whole pandemic thing.”
“I do think those who had to work on campus, repeatedly getting exposed, should get some retroactive hazard pay,” says Bowden. "While a trinket, tumbler, or bag of snacks is a nice gesture, and sometimes all that can be done, people really want a break from the mental stress and struggles of working on a split campus."
“I don’t envy the senior administration,” says Laura Lockett, director of University Print & Mail at Sacramento State. “Finding a recognition option that can be applied equitably is challenging. Some think a free lunch is great, others say hazard pay is what is required. With such a large gamut and often limited budgets it’s very challenging to know what to do to show appreciation.”
As manager, Lockett has made sure to connect personally with each team member to assess their concerns. Her division’s quarterly team zoom meetings have included team-building activities, which she says have also helped morale.
Overall, it appears it’s the in-plant managers themselves who have been making the effort to show appreciation to their staffs for their efforts during COVID. They treat their employees to lunch, throw holiday parties, and present them with awards to show their gratitude.
“Managers and directors have been taking it upon themselves to recognize their own staff, but little is done beyond that,” says Bowden. “I made sure each and every one of my crew got gifts from me before the holidays, along with treats. Nothing from above me though.”
Everywhere, in-plants are doing the difficult, dangerous work, and they are frustrated. Their organizations seem to have forgotten about them in their haste to make remote workers feel appreciated. Meanwhile, COVID continues to sicken in-plant employees, impacting production and morale.
“We’ve gone above and beyond and answered the call over and over again,” says Bowden. “We’ve been holding the fort down, waiting and being told the rest are coming back ‘on this date,’ which just keeps getting pushed back. We’ve taken on the brunt of the stress and fatigue, and we just want people to come back to work and take some of that off of us.
“It’s far beyond time to come back to work. Those of us here need the rest of the people to see the lead we took nearly two years ago and follow it.”
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.