I-Team: Despite COVID-19 shutdown, Dunlop tire plant remains open

Employees not happy, fear exposure to virus
Posted at 5:35 PM, Mar 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-23 17:39:50-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down in the wake of the coronavirus, but employees at the Dunlop tire plant in the Town of Tonawanda are still clocking in -- and some are not happy about it.

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team spoke with three people who are either employees or family members of employees at the plant, which is owned by Sumitomo Rubber of Japan. They worry that the 1,400 employees reporting to work are at high risk of COVID-19 by showing up to one of the factory’s four shifts each day.

“Everybody in that plant wants to work, but we have to do the right thing and get ahead of this (COVID-19) thing and slow it down,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the employee feared retribution for speaking out. “Look at New York City now -- that’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not fair,” said one family member of an employee. “It's not fair to the community, because there are so many workers there that are working in a plant and then they all go home to their families. And a lot of those families have children who are immune-compromised, and that cannot be safe.”

The company sent a memo to employees saying, “we have received comments from people who believe it is irresponsible to maintain production at tire factories, and for tire stores to remain open…”

But even though tire manufacturers are not on Gov. Cuomo’s list of approved industries, Richard Smallwood, president and CEO of Sumitomo Rubber North America,, said the company has received approval from the state and federal governments to stay open.

“This illness will blow over at some point, that's anybody's guess when that will occur,” said Smallwood.

Without tires, the country’s transportation system will come to a halt, he said.

“If a fire truck is going to go somewhere, they need tires,” Smallwood said. “And what happens is the fire truck gets a flat tire or an ambulance or, you know, we see 18-wheelers driving up and down the freeway, and they're going to be delivering medical supplies. They're going to be delivering food.”

The company is letting some white-collar employees work from home, he said, and the 1 million square foot factory is practicing social distancing. Workers, though, remain skeptical.

“They do have a line that they work on and they may be a little far apart, but everybody's crossing paths and there are a lot of people,” the family member of the employee said. “It’s just not safe for that many people at this time to be in an area like that.”

Smallwood said employees are free to stay home if they do not feel safe.

“There should be nobody who is going to the factory today who feels uncomfortable going,” he said.

But under an agreement with the union, those employees would need to use their vacation time or accept medical layoffs.

Employees say they want to work — but more than that, they want to see the spread of COVID-19 limited in Erie County.

We are seeking clarification from the governor’s office, which has not responded to our request for comment.