Monday Morning Minute: April 6, 2020

Union Work

Special COVID Update

We’ve secured paid leave for COVID-19 related absences at all the major paper companies and now are working on the smaller employers. This is imperative for us for two reasons: (1) Making sure our members have a paycheck if they or a family member becomes ill or has to quarantine and (2) The health and safety of our members.  

Simply put, our members should not have to choose between a paycheck and risking spread of the virus to other co-workers. We want to keep our facilities and steady paychecks and benefits going as long as possible. Paid leave limits the risk of exposure and possible shutdown by allowing people to stay home if they have a COVID-19 event.  Some employers are implementing wellness and fever checks, and we are supporting this and working with staff and local unions to implement best practices.

We’ve worked with our district directors and governors to deem our industry and fiber supply (forestry) as essential to keep our country operating and protect our members’ jobs, incomes and benefits.  We are also working to ensure customer bases like printers for our coated free sheet mills are included as essential businesses in the government declaration.

We’re very proud of our USW paperworkers who are not only fundamental to keeping our country’s supply chain going, but critical during this crisis – from toilet paper, paper towels and boxes for shipping necessary goods to pulp that goes into diapers, and feminine and incontinence products to medical grade paper hospital gowns and supplies to paper for prescriptions; the list goes on. 

Some of our facilities are even diverting their operations to make necessary and innovative products for this crisis.  We’ve highlighted some of the work you are doing below, and we say THANK YOU.

We’re assisting with safety issues and urging employers to push back or scale down outages—except where essential or required by insurance.  We’re getting a handle on best safety practices with the industry through calls with councils, and we will be sharing those with you.

As always, our job is to know, understand and anticipate the industry.  Right now, our immediate worries are newsprint, and uncoated and coated free sheet facilities.  Many newspapers are cutting back even more than before the crisis; some are going to online only. As schools and offices close and remain closed, demand for uncoated free sheet (copy paper) is dropping. We’ve had two paper mills and one paper machine temporarily close this week into July and other limited layoffs. We are working to assist those locals during this time. The coated freesheet sector faces similar headwinds as print advertising declines, so we are watching that situation closely.  But even our box sector faces rising costs as recovered paper and Old Corrugated Container (OCC) prices are soaring due, again, to schools and offices being closed.  This impacts operating margins across the box business.

And we must think ahead beyond this crisis and the recession (hopefully not a depression) after it. There will be less demand for many of our products if other basic industries do not rebound. 

We analyzed the debt of all the major companies, when it comes due and worry about the inability of some companies to refinance. But we are not a stranger to bankruptcies or hard times and the protection of our members’ jobs and livelihoods. 

We are committed to preparing and positioning our facilities for success by knowing the industry, seeking out buyers, and finding whatever leverage possible to advance and represent our members’ interests.  We know these are our mills, our facilities and our communities at the end of the day, no matter what sign is at the entrance, and it is our job to protect them.

Again, thank you for all you are doing. We are doing our best for you right now and are always proud to represent you, but especially in these times.

Mohawk Paper Mill Offers Paper-Based Materials to Produce Pop-Up Hospital Rooms

USW Local 390 – Mohawk Paper – Cohoes, NY – While Mohawk Paper typically specializes in the production of fine papers and envelopes used for commercial and digital printing, the company also partners with South African startup company Xanita Board to distribute a product similar to corrugated cardboard. The product, also called Xanita Board, is produced from recycled paper products, is strong enough to bear weight, and can be cut to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to build three-dimensional, weight-bearing structures.

According to the company, all the Xanita Board currently on hand at Mohawk is ready to be converted at a moment’s notice into walls, beds and other useful structures. It will then be shipped with easy-to-understand instructions so it can be built on-site in minutes, requiring no tools and only simple nuts and bolts shipped with each kit. Because the boards are made from recycled cardboard, once the need for the temporary structures is complete, the units can be stored for re-use or turned back into pulp for paper.

***If your local has shifted production to assist and support efforts around the coronavirus pandemic, we want to know about it. Our industry has rightfully been deemed essential based on the everyday products that we already manufacture, but we want to also showcase how adaptable the paper sector and its workforce are during a crisis. Please email Laura Donovan at ldonovan@usw.org with any details so we can collect responses and report on the important work that our members are doing.***

Expanded Benefits for HSA and FSA Plans under Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was signed into law on March 27, and includes comprehensive benefits to address the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent health emergency in the U.S. Part of that Act contains several key provisions that may positively benefit Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and Health Savings Account (HSA) plan participants.

Over-the-counter medicines that do not require a prescription—like cold and flu medicine, pain relievers, allergy medicines, etc.—have been added as eligible expenses that can be reimbursed under an HSA or FSA plan. This change is retroactively effective for these expenses incurred after January 1, 2020. Additionally, you will be able to use the benefits card that you were issued under your plan to purchase these over-the-counter medications, rather than being required to submit a form later for reimbursement.

The CARES Act also permits high-deductible health plans to cover testing and treatment for COVID-19 before the deductible is met; so, the amount that employees would contribute to their HSA plan would not be affected due to the virus. The Act also allows telehealth and other remote care to be offered for any condition without jeopardizing the ability of employees to contribute to HSAs.

Sentinel Benefits has posted a comprehensive list of eligible health expenses here.

However, please contact your health provider if you have any specific questions about how the CARES Act has impacted your plan.

Safety

OSHA Alert on Coronavirus Response

OSHA has released an alert on preventing work exposure to the coronavirus. In addition to engaging in proper hand-washing techniques and the recommendation to avoid close contact with people who are sick, the alert also includes recommended practices for employers to follow. Those practices include assessing the hazards to which workers may be exposed; evaluating the risk of exposure, and selecting, implementing and ensuring workers use controls to prevent exposure. These controls include physical barriers to control the spread of the virus, social distancing, appropriate personal protective equipment hygiene and cleaning supplies.

Industry Update

Essity 

USW Locals 324, 1241, 1478, 1535, 1-112, & 1-1279 – Menasha, Wis.; Danville, Ky.; South Glens Falls, N.Y.; Barton, Ala.; Middletown, Ohio, & Neenah, Wis. – We’re hearing that many of our sites are running out of basic hand washing supplies, like paper towels, and are unable to secure more from their regular suppliers.  If your employer is looking for, or needing, to purchase paper towels with the increase of employees washing their hands at your sites, Essity has offered contact information for their key account manager in Essity’s sales organization. Have your employer contact Paul Cunningham at the following email address: Paul.Cunningham@essity.com. Have your purchaser note that you are a USW site, and the company will do everything it can to make the order a priority.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Cost of Old Corrugated Container (OCC)

Old corrugated containers, or those that have been used, recycled and then sold back to containerboard producers, are used as a source of fiber by many paper companies that the USW represents. The coronavirus pandemic is having an impact on OCC pricing due to a few factors. As schools, offices and non-essential businesses have closed and remain shut down, less paper is being used and, consequently, recycled. This is impacting price margins across the sector as supply has decreased. At the same time, domestic shipments of corrugated containers have increased sharply due to consumer-driven e-commerce. Folks are shopping online more to stock up their pantries as the coronavirus response has implemented new restrictions. Pricing information incorporating the coronavirus effect have not been released yet, but industry analysts will be paying close attention, as will the USW.

Tell Us Your Stories!

Has your local done something amazing? Have you had a great solidarity action? Done something huge to help your community? Made significant connections with other labor groups? Is your Women of Steel or Next Gen committee making waves? Have you had success in bargaining, major accomplishments? We all stay so busy working to improve our workplaces and communities that we often do not take 5 minutes to reflect, share and celebrate our accomplishments.

Tell us your story so we can all be part of it! Contact Laura Donovan at ldonovan@usw.org, or at 412-562-2504.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-2446

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222