BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The DuPont Yerkes plant in the Town of Tonawanda has been closed for weeks because of COVID-19.
But DuPont has now reopened with permission from New York State -- and not all employees are happy about it.
“The oversight on these essential businesses is really lax,” said one employee, who spoke to the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the company. “I think companies are just using the vagueness of [Governor Cuomo’s] mandate to go around it.”
Another major factory with more than 1,000 workers -- the Sumitomo Dunlop tire plant, also in the Town of Tonawanda -- has managed to stay open, drawing criticism from employees and an elected official.
No workers that we know of have tested positive at the plant, but public health officials across the nation -- and especially in New York under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s PAUSE order -- have been warning people to “stay home and stop the spread.”
The DuPont employees say they’re happy to work, but they don’t want to put their own families at risk by catching the virus at work and bringing it home.
“So if I'm forced to go back to work to make countertops, which I don't think are essential, I can't come home,” one employee said. “I can't put my family in danger when they're doing what they're supposed to do. And so I'm gonna spend half my salary staying at a hotel.”
Workers say the main products DuPont makes at the Yerkes site are materials for Corian countertops and a special coating for airplanes and solar panels. Cuomo’s executive order does allow chemical companies to stay open, but the workers say that’s a stretch.
“But we don't produce chemicals,” the employee said. “There's nothing about what we're doing that is essential. We make Corian, which is used in countertop material.”
A second employee said, “We are making countertops. Not sure how that’s essential in these times.”
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz agrees with the employees.
“Corian being made at the DuPont plant...I don’t think that that would qualify, but if they get an exemption from New York State, I can’t stop it,” he said Friday.
Monday, Poloncarz gave an update at his daily briefing, saying that Town of Tonawanda police showed up to the factory after the county received multiple complaints about DuPont.
"Based on their analysis, [they] determined that DuPont had the right to be open," Poloncarz said.
A spokeswoman at Empire State Development said she wasn’t sure why DuPont was granted an exception. She referred us to the State Attorney General’s Office.
In a written statement, DuPont spokesman David Winder said, “The safety and well-being of our employees and customers as well as ensuring the highest product quality and safety are key priorities for us. We have implemented safety plans and protocols based on World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and recommendations to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, all non-essential site employees now work remote, we are limiting visits to the plant to business-critical only and are practicing social distancing between process areas at the site and sanitizing common areas more frequently. We continue to monitor the situation as it evolves and adjust our plans and protocols on an ongoing basis to ensure employee safety while keeping production running. Specialty chemical manufacturing facilities like Yerkes have been designated by the Governor’s office as essential businesses.”
He later clarified that the Corian made at the Tonawanda plant "converts chemicals into solid sheets to create the non-porous Corian solid surface, which is used in a variety of applications, including healthcare environments, nurses stations, corridor wall cladding, and some operating rooms."
He also said the Tedlar made at the plant, in addition to being used for solar panels and aircraft, will be made for "building supplies currently being used to make short-term hospitals and structures globally and domestically. Tedlar polyvinyl fluoride films are inherently resistant to harsh chemicals and do not support the growth of bacteria and mold."
The employee who spoke to the I-Team said employees staying home temporarily will benefit the community long-term.
“I've sacrificed a lot of time away from my family to make money for me, to make money for DuPont,” the employee said. “And I just wish that they would look out for my family now. Put us first and when this is all over, then we could go back to making money.”