How the Coronavirus is Affecting In-plants
This column was written in mid-March and reflects the uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic. For a more updated story on the impact of COVID-19 on in-plants, read this article: Printing During a Pandemic.
As I walked the rainy streets of Philadelphia Friday morning, the sense of gloom was palpable. And I don’t just mean the overcast skies.
It’s not that there were noticeably fewer people on the sidewalks. But there was a different feeling in the air, a sense of dread. It surfaced each time I looked at someone and wondered, “Does he have it?”
You know what I mean by “it.”
On Thursday the country seemed to explode with anxiety as the realization set in that the coronavirus (COVID-19) really could be a big deal. Corporate travel bans were enacted, and in-plant message boards lit up with discussions of contingency plans in the face of a plant shutdown, and questions like “how long can the virus live on the surface of a package?” (Anywhere from hours to days, depending on many factors, and longer on smooth, nonporous surfaces. Read more here.)
Up until Thursday, I was still planning to fly to IPMA headquarters in Missouri to oversee the In-Print 2020 contest judging. Then judges started canceling travel plans and parent companies began banning travel. So judging will have to wait.
I’ve talked to managers in California who were making plans to work from home and outsource all printing to local printers once their campuses closed. At the University of Washington in Seattle, the earliest city to face the virus, Manager Katy Folk-Way described the campus last Tuesday as a “ghost town.”
“Delivery is still happening, as long as the customer buildings are open,” she said in an email. “Mailing Services has encountered many closed areas, and are holding mail.”
That mail is a source of concern for many in-plants, as they wonder whether it could be infected. Messiah College is forwarding all mail and packages, since students are now on spring break and were told not to return until after Easter.
“Day-to-day black and white volumes have dried up,” notes Manager Dwayne Magee. “No exams, no class handouts, etc. Any of those orders that were in the pipeline have been cancelled.”
He has divided his staff into two teams and is alternating shifts to help maintain social distance.
"We are using this time now to pre-print all of the orders we have related to changing our name and address," Magee says. "We are Messiah College at One College Avenue but starting in July we will be Messiah University at One University Avenue. So we are printing tens of thousands of letterhead, envelopes, and business cards. This may be the only good thing about this pandemic: it created a window for special project work like this."
"The rest of my time is being spent catastrophizing," he continues. "What is the plan if employees are sent home? Our pandemic plan has clear guidelines for that scenario and so I am preparing for that and hoping it doesn’t come to that."
It has come to that at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut.
"We are closed," wrote Manager Mario Masseli in a message to IPI's Facebook page. "I’ve gone in to check on things. Employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Only had four orders to work on since end of business day Friday. Doing our part to keep the employee number’s down on campus."
At Middle Tennessee State University, spring break has been extended, and students are being moved to online classes.
“Thus, our print orders are being cancelled right and left at a rapid pace,” remarks Ed Arning, director of Creative Marketing Solutions.
Managers are worried about their companies or schools closing down, precisely what happened today at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Our university abruptly shut down this morning,” says Director Richard Beto. “Some staff had reported to work and left. Others who had jobs running and it was more convenient to finish worked thru the job and then left. We have essential staff working, required. We are receiving FedEx, UPS and DHL deliveries thru noon today. We will post notices on the warehouse door indicating our dock will open at 6 a.m. Monday with plans to received thru noon if the University is closed Monday.”
Everywhere, employees are spraying surfaces and screens with abandon to curtail the spread of the virus. Designers and others who work on computers are starting to work from home. Those who had been concerned all week already placed orders for extra toner and paper to be ready. Many are checking with customers to determine their most critical jobs.
For some, particularly in the Midwest, there is much less panic.
“We are open and operating as usual for now, while taking any and all extra precautions,” notes Liz Bowden, Duplicating Services Manager at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We have latex gloves, wipes and spray available, and are trying to limit potential exposure.”
Others are seeking ways to cut down on physical contact as well.
“For printing deliveries we use an iPad for delivery signatures. As of yesterday we are not passing the iPad to the customer for the signature,” explained Laura Sicklesteel, manager, Printing Services, California State University, San Bernardino. “We simply scan the package and input the name and complete the delivery, creating a touchless transaction.”
"Gloves are being used but not mandated for mail and receiving personnel," says Laura Lockett, director of Sacramento State University Print & Mail. "My boss said this morning that they have noted that while some people don’t like to wear gloves, when you wear them, you tend to touch your face less so that is its own benefit."
"Some of my team are opting to use vacation," she continues. "I will rotate mail clerks that do not have leave time so that we have coverage but are minimizing the number on-site. A few print staff will be here, and we are working on internal reorganizing and cleaning because the amount of work is so low."
The State of Tennessee’s in-plant has set up a potential alternate location for receiving incoming mail. Director Tammy Golden has requested an exception if the building closes down so she can keep a skeleton crew on hand to handle critical mailings.
"We’re trying to isolate each work area as much as possible," she says. "We’re designating one employee in each area to handle transferring jobs to the next location."
“Wondering if our disaster recovery vendor will be up and running if we need them,” she mused.
Employees are being told not to come to work if they are sick, but Beto of the University of Texas at Austin worries about the ones who have used up all their sick time already.
“We are told by HR we can’t ask them to leave,” he said. “If an employee is obviously ill and won’t leave, we have a plan to minimize their exposure to others.”
"The upside is that many of us have a to-do list that we keep waiting for the slow time that never seems to come," notes Lockett. "I’m hopeful that I will be crossing lots of things off my list in the weeks to come."
No one knows what will happen with their in-plant in the days ahead, and that uncertainty is the most stressful part. As one manager put it: “Being in the manufacturing sector, if my company shuts down, I will also be shut down.”
Related story: In-plant ‘Saved by a Pandemic’
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, cosponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.