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Monogram Snacks in Henry County shuts down and tests all 642 employees in one day

Monogram Snacks in Henry County shuts down and tests all 642 employees in one day

From the Martinsville-region COVID-19/coronavirus daily update from state, nation and world: May 31 series
Only $3 for 13 weeks

Monogram Snacks set a record Friday.

Henry County’s second-largest employer tested every one of its employees for COVID-19, immediately sent everyone home and then shut down the plant for three days as a series of deep-cleaning initiatives began.

“We are testing 642 team members today, and that started at 6:15 this morning with our third shift,” Vice President of Operations Pat Strickland said on Friday. “The test is being administered by health care professionals that we have contracted for assistance here at the facility.”

By comparison, a testing site at the Martinsville Speedway under the direction of the West Piedmont Health District and funded by a grant from The Harvest Foundation has been open for over seven weeks. Public Information Officer Nancy Bell said volunteers had conducted 400 tests as of Thursday.

“We’re doing this one hundred percent voluntarily,” Monogram CEO Karl Schledwitz said. “This is not being mandated to us.”

Schledwitz said state officials offered to do the tests “because of the industry we’re in, at their expense, and that was very tempting, but they couldn’t get to us for two weeks.

“We could have waited and had somebody else do the tests and us not pay anything, but we elected not to,” Schledwitz said.

He would not be specific about the cost but said, “It was well into six figures — several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Plans for testing and shutting down the plant for cleaning came the day before an article in the Martinsville Bulletin appeared telling the story of Angela Hairston’s brother, an employee of Monogram who is recovering from COVID-19.

Hairston had filed a complaint with state and OSHA officials on behalf of her brother, alleging unsafe working conditions and noncompliance with CDC recommended guidelines.

Other employees had reached out to community leaders and the Bulletin to express concerns and suggested more than one employee had tested positive. Schledwitz said there were five.

“To address any specific arguments in the article, obviously it was expressing certain people’s opinions, and I respect those opinions, but I would rather focus on what Monogram is indeed doing and the truth of what we are doing to protect our team members,” Strickland said.


more cases

Monogram has more than 3,000 employees working in nine plants spread out over six states. Although the undertaking Friday at the Martinsville plant was at its largest plant, this was not the company’s first confrontation with the virus that has caused a pandemic.

“Two other plants that we did it [testing] in previously, there had been a lot more positives than in Martinsville,” said Schledwitz, who explained the company’s position in an op-ed letter on Friday. “We haven’t had a positive in over a week in Martinsville, and I believe we’re at five total — so in the scheme of things, it’s significantly less than 1%.

“In the previous two plants, one was in southwest Minnesota, right in the midst of a hot spot that had literally thousands of positives, and we had probably 10% of the workforce test positive,” Schledwitz said. “In the other one it was less than 5%.

“We haven’t predetermined was success looks like. Obviously you hope nobody has it, but the reality is what we’re learning is if you were to take any 700 people out of any part of Martinsville and tested all 700, there would be statistically several of them that tested positive — so we expect there to be some positives. That’s why we’re testing — to make sure those people are quarantined and don’t spread it.”

Monogram contracted with LabCorp of Burlington, N.C., to conduct the tests onsite.

“We have couriers from LabCorp who are shuttling these samples as we collect them to LabCorp in Burlington, N.C., so that there is complete chain of custody control on these tests,” Strickland said. The testing “will provide protection and confidence that our team members are working with others that are healthy.

“If we look at our community, Virginia as a state, the seven-day running average of positive cases has come down, and we’re on a good trend statewide, but we monitor the four-county range of Patrick, Henry, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties, and the municipalities of Martinsville and Danville, and the reported case rate in the region has risen by 300%.

“So while southwest Virginia was spared high case rates for a good period of time, we are seeing an increase in case rates throughout our communities.

“We want to make sure we are ahead of that curve, and we want to make sure we are protecting our team members.” Strickland said.

Already stringent cleaning

The Monogram plant in Martinsville is USDA-inspected, which requires high measures of sanitation and sanitary handling practices.

“We clean this facility with biocides every day,” Strickland said. “We sanitize all food contact surfaces.

“All of our food handlers follow our good manufacturing practices with intense hand washing, hand sanitizing, wearing of gloves where appropriate and personal protective equipment.

“Then when the CDC identified common touch points and hard surfaces as potential points of transmission, we added additional sanitizing in all of our break rooms and locker rooms on an ongoing and continuous basis.

“We’ve fogged all of our locker rooms and break rooms with chlorine dioxide which is a very strong viruside, and we have continued fogging and misting.

“We have tested our hard surface common-touch points for the coronavirus with all negative results to validate the effectiveness of our sanitation practices.”

Clarifying, cleaning

Strickland said he took issue with Hairston’s complaint that employees have reason to feel threatened by the company for expressing their concerns, and he said they have made policy changes so employees will not be penalized for COVID-19 related issues.

“We have modified our attendance policy so that those who may be ill or tested for coronavirus or if a contact of theirs is being tested — that they suffer no penalty,” Strickland said. “Their job is not at risk, never has been, never will be and their pay is not jeopardized.”

As each employee completed testing on Friday, he or she was told to leave the building immediately and go home. No one will be allowed back on the property until they receive a negative test result.

“The tests should take between 48 and 72 hours, and they [employees] will be notified of both negative and positive results,” Strickland said. “Those that might have a positive result will be directed to their primary health care provider, and we will, of course, require medical confirmation before anyone returns to work for those individuals.”

The plant was closed after testing was completed on Friday and will reopen on Tuesday morning. Everyone is receiving full pay for Friday and Monday while awaiting the results.

While the employees wait and the plant is closed, a cleaning crew will take over.

“When we say ‘deep cleaning,’ it is really layered-on cleaning,” Strickland said. “This facility, being a USDA establishment, all food processing equipment is completely disassembled every night, cleaned with detergents and sanitizers and goes through a full microbiological preop every morning before we start this plant.

“That same step will happen tonight [Friday]. Now in addition to that, all auxiliary areas will be fogged with bacteriacidal and viralcidal solutions, our common touch points will receive additional sanitizing and fogging and then that process — plus additional fogging of those areas tonight and on Monday night [will be done] prior to start on Tuesday.”

‘Abnormal is

the new normal’

Schledwitz is not only the CEO of Monogram but one of its founders. He is in his 60s and says there is no reference in his lifetime with which to compare the coronavirus pandemic.

“There has not been any book off the shelf I could grab to say, ‘Here’s what you do when you have a virus like this’ or ‘Here’s who you can call,’ Schledwitz said. “I tell people for me abnormal is the new normal.”

Strickland says Monogram has been leading the industry in the company’s approach to COVID-19.

“We had masks before they were mandating masks. We were sanitizing common-touch points before the CDC identified that as a primary mode of transmission. We were taking temperatures before they became common practice, and we restricted visitors at the very beginning,” Strickland said. “As the science changes we also respond to the science, and as we receive continual guidance from the USDA and the CDC, we evaluate and respond and modify continuously as we find a better way.”

Schledwitz said other companies, much larger than Monogram, are looking to them for guidance.

“We have been at the forefront, we never have taken this lightly,” he said. “The CDC if you recall, almost reversed their position because at one point they were not promoting wearing masks, and then, kind of out of nowhere, they came out with a policy that said that you should wear masks.

“Well, we jumped through hoops. They came out with that policy on Thursday, and we paid extra and air-shipped masks, and we were distributing masks to all 3,000 of our employees the next Tuesday.

“We’ve done more testing than most, we have been at the forefront in the use of different kinds of sanitation and we think we’re a week or two away from having a new round of testing that we can do and have results back within an hour.

“We believe we’ll be one of the first plants to roll that out in the country.”

Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt

Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt

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