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As Many Americans Stay Home, Factory Workers Continue Production Around The Clock

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

While the president and his advisers talk about reopening the economy, there are parts of the economy that never closed. Some factories still operate around-the-clock, making products we depend on during this pandemic - food, face masks and, yes, toilet tissue. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what it takes to keep production lines humming in this time of the coronavirus and what lessons that might offer for the rest of us.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jose de los Rios is one of the unsung heroes of this pandemic. He's not a doctor or a scientist. He's worked for almost 30 years at a Procter & Gamble paper goods plant in Mehoopany, Pa.

JOSE DE LOS RIOS: At this plant, we make our Charmin brand, our Bounty brand, and then we make Pampers and Luvs diapers.

HORSLEY: In recent weeks, there's been a squeeze on Charmin toilet paper. Maybe you've heard about it. De los Rios certainly has.

DE LOS RIOS: I get a lot of ribbing locally in my neighborhood. At least a third or half of my neighbors stop me and jokingly ask, can I get them some?

HORSLEY: De los Rios and his colleagues are making as much toilet paper as they can, running the plant 24 hours a day while also trying to protect the health of the more than 2,000 people who work there. It's a model for those of us who can only imagine punching in at the workplace, says Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

JAY TIMMONS: This particular virus is one that we're all trying to figure out. What will the new world actually look like after we make the decision to open up society again?

HORSLEY: People like de los Rios have been working that out in real time. At the Charmin factory, shift changes have been stretched out over three hours to keep workers separated at the plant door. Employees have their temperature taken on the way in. And instead of roaming freely throughout the mile-long plant, workers are compartmentalized with color-coded badges.

DE LOS RIOS: Every individual got assigned a zone that they were allowed to operate in. It reduces the likelihood of spread of any illness across the plant.

HORSLEY: In the beginning, de los Rios says, it was disruptive and awkward, but workers have adjusted.

DE LOS RIOS: It's rather comical looking into a break area now. Instead of before, there might've been four or five people to a table. Now it's just one individual with their mask on unless they're eating.

HORSLEY: A General Mills plant in Wellston, Ohio, has adopted similar precautions, erecting a tent in the parking lot so workers can maintain social distance during their breaks. Manager Carolyn Mendel says her plant has stayed extra busy making frozen pizza and pizza rolls.

CAROLYN MENDEL: We have seen a lot of feedback from our consumers that the Totino's product line is getting them through quarantine.

HORSLEY: At a time when many people are homebound and millions out of work, Mendel's seen a spike in demand for affordable comfort food.

MENDEL: There's comfort when mom goes to the grocery store and can find food on the shelf. And we talk about how stressful it is when those shelves are empty.

HORSLEY: So far, the safety measures appear to be working. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus at Mendel's plant or de los Rios', although some workers at both facilities have been quarantined as a precaution. Not every factory owner's been so careful. Several meatpacking plants have been forced to shut down after widespread outbreaks among their workers. Former federal safety official Deborah Berkowitz says the government hasn't done enough to police those plants, where workers typically stand shoulder to shoulder on the cutting line.

DEBORAH BERKOWITZ: These workers are often very hidden. The plants are often in more rural, sort of remote areas. Therefore, people don't see the sort of sacrifices they're making.

HORSLEY: Factory managers, like Mendel, show it is possible to keep products flowing and keep workers safe. Mendel says her workers take a lot of pride in what they're doing.

MENDEL: They feel like they're serving the country by coming into the plant and grinding out those pizzas and pizza rolls.

HORSLEY: The Charmin plant in Pennsylvania has also started making face masks. But don't worry. They won't skimp on the toilet paper.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.