OWOSSO TWP. — The Woodard Furniture Company plant on Delaney Road, temporarily shuttered because of coronavirus restrictions, was eerily quiet Wednesday — except for the upholstery department, where rows of sewing machines were clacking away.
Since Tuesday, about 20 industrial upholsterer volunteers have been sewing face masks for use by Memorial Healthcare and area first-responders, as well as for front-line workers in coronavirus “hot spots” across America.
“It’s what is needed for our country right now, so that’s what we’re doing,” said Bonnie Schuster, upholstery supervisor at Woodard. “My crew out here is amazing.”
Schuster and her crew — and most other Woodard employees — were laid off Monday for three weeks, receiving two weeks’ salary to see them through. The 20 out of 24 upholsterers who volunteered to make masks won’t receive any extra pay for the eight hour-shifts they are working.
And that’s fine with them.
The upholsterers are proud to be helping the medical community and their country during a time when desperately needed face masks are in short supply.
“I know the hospitals are going to need as many masks as they can get, because this is really an epidemic,” seamstress Mary Kreinerink said. “I’m also glad I got an opportunity to work. It’s better than sitting at home.”
The group has adopted the nickname 2020 Rosie the Riveters, a reference to female factory workers during World War II. Woodard, then based in the city of Owosso, contributed to the war effort by making jeeps instead of patio furniture.
“Seventy-five years later, we’re still doing what we can,” Woodard general manager Lou Zelenka said.
By Wednesday morning, the upholstery crew had manufactured about 600 masks. The masks are made from 100 percent washable cotton and elastic. They are not medical grade but still help to protect workers whenever approved masks are not available.
On Tuesday, 100 masks were delivered to Memorial. The hospital announced its first positive test result by a patient Wednesday, a 33-year-old Owosso man. Other test results were still pending for 172 of the 272 people the hospital had tested to date.
“We appreciate Woodward’s efforts, along with the efforts of the hundreds of private citizens who have volunteered to construct masks and business leaders who have donated personal protection equipment,” Memorial Healthcare President/CEO Brian Long said. “We continue to work hard at acquiring approved masks and equipment, but we have to plan for every eventuality.”
While Woodard is putting its industrial-strength equipment to work, others are pitching in at home.
Diane Scarlett of Corunna, an insurance agency manager in East Lansing, is one of the home volunteers making masks for Memorial using cotton fabric supplied by the hospital. She has completed three dozen so far.
“It’s something I can do to help out,” Scarlett said. “The people at Memorial have a very difficult job if they can’t get the supplies they need to do the job, and it’s going to affect all of us.”
Woodard owner Jean Liu knows that, which is why she reached a decision on the evening of March 19 to do something about it. She sent Zelenka a photo of a “homemade” mask covering an approved filtered medical mask Friday and asked if the plant in Owosso Township could make some.
The answer was a definite “yes.”
“You watch the news and see other companies struggling and you see the coronavirus heading this way, and you feel there isn’t much you can do but sit and wait for something bad to happen,” Zelenka said. “Our staff just wants to help. It was easy to say, ‘Heck, yeah,’ and you feel a little better knowing you’re helping. It feels good to help.”
By 9 a.m. Monday — the same day Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s issued the statewide “stay home, stay safe” order, prompting Woodard to close and lay off employees — company upholstery engineer Howard Dennis had designed a prototype mask based on information he found online.
Fabric was ordered and sent overnight to the plant, and multiple other companies have since offered to donate reams of cotton material and elastic. Twenty of the 34 upholstery workers at Woodard volunteered to sew them.
“They could be home making some wages instead of coming here,” Zelenka said. “It’s amazing they want to do this.”
Workers continue to refine the mask design and, as they become used to the process, are speeding up their output. Zelenka estimates the crew will soon be producing 5,000 masks per week.
Safety precautions have been put in place for the volunteers, who are maintaining social distance and sanitizing their hands. In addition, equipment is wiped down three times a day where they are working.
“We’re doing our best to keep people safe while we’re doing this,” Zelenka said.
No one knows when the “stay home, stay safe” order will be lifted or how bad the coronavirus outbreak will become in the days and weeks ahead. For now, the mask-makers plan to keep sewing.
“We’re doing to do this as long as we’re needed,” Zelenka said. “As long as there is still a shortage of masks in this country, we will keep making masks. We’re in a unique situation, and we’re going to wait and see what happens.
“Until then, we’ll be here, doing our part.”