BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Public health officials across the nation are urging people to stay home and avoid contact with others because of COVID-19, but more than 1,000 people employed at the Sumitomo Dunlop tire plant are still showing up to work -- and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz isn't happy about it.
“I cannot order the closure of Sumitomo Rubber because it has been allowed through the ‘parts for auto industry’ [exception] to continue,” Poloncarz said Tuesday. “It probably doesn't need to be open and it would probably be in their best interest to close for their workers.”
Both Poloncarz and officials at the Town of Tonawanda tiremaker say Empire State Development has given them special permission as an “essential” business because transportation is one of 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” for the U.S. economy, as designated by the federal government.
Many large American carmakers have shut down operations, and tiremakers such as Goodyear and Cooper Tires have also opted to send employees home.
“My understanding is they can do it, though I would not recommend them being open at this point because I can tell you, not many people are going out and buying new tires,” Poloncarz said.
While the company disputes that -- CEO Richard Smallwood said last week that the company is making tires for first responders -- and officials say they are taking the necessary safety precautions, most workers who contacted the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team agree with Poloncarz.
“We're not essential to the government,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “We’re not essential to anybody.”
The employee said tires made now “are not going to hit the shelves or warehouses until six months after we make them...Really the big question is, how did they stay open?”
Another worker emailed the I-Team, saying, “I work here and it’s rough seeing the people and morale down and they just want to be with their families and not get sick.”
A third person wrote, “As you know we are in a WORLD WIDE PANDEMIC!...What is more important, MONEY OR PEOPLE????”
But a different employee stated, "I just want it to be known that there’s a lot of guys here that think the company and union with all the circumstances are doing the best they can and are happy to be at work."
Of Poloncarz's comments, Sumitomo HR director Russell Pustulka said in an email, "While we are aware of the personal opinion provided by the County Executive during yesterday’s briefing, we have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the comment directly with him. However, we hope to soon, as we would like to understand how we can support the County as an essential business."
And officials at the Japanese tiremaker point out that they have offered voluntary medical layoffs, which have been taken by around 100 employees.
“Of course we are also allowing people to work from home where we can,” the company said in a statement. “Our team members make their personal decision of what is best for them and their families.”
Smallwood gave the following figures for medical precautions of Sumitomo workers:
- 258 employees have been screened by a company nurse.
- 0 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
- 28 employees have been quarantined for cause (one or more symptoms or exposure, though company officials later clarified that it “DOES NOT mean they have or we perceive them to have COVID-19; rather, we have proactively quarantined employees as a precautionary measure and for a number of different reasons,” including if the employees were considered high-risk or were returning from an overseas vacation.
- 6 employees have tested positive for influenza, not COVID-19.
Union president Thomas O’Shei declined to comment for this story.
Pustulka, the HR director, wrote in a statement, "Our Team Members are our number one responsibility, and we will continue to be proactive by following and enhancing CDC guidelines relating to social distancing and cleaning at a minimum. Further our third party independent medical provider works across all shifts and teams with the local health department to ensure proper screenings are completed and if needed a certified COVID test is initiated. To date there has been zero confirmations of a positive COVID test.”