General Electric anticipates temporarily laying off 60% of its Rutland workforce as part of a nationwide staff reduction.
“Due to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on the commercial aviation industry, GE Aviation is implementing a temporary reduction in commercial engine assembly and some component manufacturing operations for up to four weeks,” read a statement from a GE spokesman sent in response to inquiries. “We appreciate the commitment of all our employees during this difficult time, and we regret having to take this action. We will continue to deliver for our customers and preserve our capability to respond when the industry recovers.”
The statement said this would affect roughly half of the company’s U.S. engine assembly and component manufacturing operations. A message to local GE employees said it expected 60% of the Rutland workforce to be subject to the “temporary lack of work requirement,” beginning April 6.
“That’s very unfortunate,” Mayor David Allaire said when informed of the situation Tuesday evening. “I know there’s a lot of families that depend on that paycheck all over our city and all over the country. It shows all industries are being affected.”
With roughly 1,400 workers, GE is one of the county’s biggest employers, if not the single biggest.
“The workforce at GE is made up of folks not just from the city, but all over the county,” Allaire said. “I’ve seen New York plates in that parking lot. This will affect the whole area. ... That’s a lot of people out on the street. Let’s hope it’s a short period of time.”
GE will not cut employees completely adrift during the four-week span. A company spokesman said GE will pay the employer and employee health insurance contributions for that time, and the notice to local employees said they will receive income aid extension payments based on their length of employment.
The local notice said informational sessions will begin Thursday and that management will start by seeking volunteers based on seniority.
The mayor said Wednesday he was waiting to hear what comes of those sessions.
A Rutland makerspace wants to produce 10,000 face shields for the local hospital to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it needs the plastic to do it.
Per Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order issued last week, directing all nonessential businesses to cease in-person operations, the MINT has been closed, according to MINT maker “evangelist” Karen McCalla.
“I think everybody has been struggling with, ‘Well, I know I’m helping by staying at home, but that doesn’t seem very helpful, so what else could we do?’” said McCalla. “We were in contact with the hospital, and they had reported that they really were running short on some (personal protective equipment).”
The MINT is a place in Rutland City where members can access anything from manufacturing tools to business advice. It’s staffed by a core group of volunteers called an “operations team,” said McCalla. Many similar groups across the state and country have been working to supply health care personnel with personal protective equipment (PPE) should supplies run low.
“There is not a shortage of PPE at Rutland Regional Medical Center,” said Peg Bolgioni, hospital spokeswoman. “We do not know what the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, so we want to be prepared with a strong inventory of necessary equipment to protect our staff and patients.”
The MINT was initially going to try supplying Rutland Regional Medical Center with fabric face masks, but making effective ones requires certain materials and the MINT isn’t set up for a great deal of sewing work, said McCalla.
“So the hospital said if we had face shields — they’re ... the plastic things you’ll see emergency workers wearing over their mask — it prevents a lot of the aerosolized stuff from being breathed in anyway, and they are running short on those,” she said.
According to McCalla, to make the face shields the MINT needs a certain type of plastic of a certain thickness, which she described as “0.020 thickness, PET.”
“The specific thing about that plastic that’s great is it’s already used in the medical field because it can be sterilized, and it’s thin enough that our design requires it to be flexible to get bent, and so that’s what’s going to work,” she said.
Gabe Oberkirch and Tom Lichtman are the two members of the MINT’s operations team that see to its day-to-day operations. They designed the face shields and converted the blueprints into a file usable by most laser cutters. McCalla said they’ve made the designs available on the MINT’s website so others can use them.
The MINT’s problem is it doesn’t have the plastic required to make the shields.
“The problem is, apparently, some suppliers still have some, but they’re selling it to people who are going to make the masks to sell them, we want to just give them to the hospital,” she said. “We’ll buy the material, but everybody is sold out on it, so we’re just hoping to find a vendor that will work with us given that we’re just trying to help people out.”
They have one vendor they’re talking to, she said, but the vendor won’t have the material for another three to four weeks.
McCalla said the MINT is looking for donations of the required plastic material, or for monetary donations to purchase it. She said if it’s selling for the price it’s supposed to be selling for, it’ll cost about $4,000. The MINT can front that, she said, but would appreciate any help. She said once there’s enough material, the MINT can make 1,000 face shields in an eight-hour shift. They store flat and can thus be moved easily, plus they only take seconds to assemble for use.
She said information on how to help can be found at the MINT’s website at rutlandmint.org/PPE-Project/
Oberkirch said the design the MINT is working with is based on one from Lithuania, and was tweaked by Lichtman while consulting with the hospital. Oberkirch said he works as a product designer for Questech, but hadn’t made anything like this before.
The MINT is using its 3-D printer to create ventilator splitters, which allow a ventilator to be shared among multiple patients. McCalla said Oberkirch has created some prototypes using designs from a makerspace in Colorado and hope Rutland Regional Medical Center will approve them for use.
Bolgioni said the 10,000 face shields, should The MINT get the supplies to make them, would be added to the hospital’s existing supply. She said she couldn’t speak to how reusable they are at this time.
“We are receiving a large number of fabric mask donations to the hospital, and we will continue to need and accept those donations,” she said. “These masks will be used in non-patient care areas. The face shields made by the MINT will not replace the fabric-made masks.”
At a Wednesday news conference, Vermont officials reviewed economic supports in place as businesses and residents attempt to comply with efforts to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Gov. Phil Scott asked Secretary Lindsay Kurrle of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and Commissioner Michael Harrington of the Department of Labor, to discuss how Vermont is responding to the “very real issue of economic uncertainty.”
“Those who have already lost their jobs ... are worried about their next paycheck. Those businesses who have closed or reduced their workload and they’re worried about their employees and their customers but also know, they need to pay their bills. These are very real costs of this crisis and touch all of us,” he said.
Kurrle said she and her staff “know it is our duty to try to assist those in need by providing resources and creating initiatives that will help businesses and individuals to emerge from this crisis on solid footing.”
She said the commerce agency had added a page to its website at accd.vermont.gov dedicated to resources that are available in response to the pandemic.
“That resource center will be updated in real time as coming days, weeks and months unfold, with the latest available resources and exactly how to access them,” Kurrle said.
She encouraged the owners of small businesses to consider applying for the economic injury disaster loan. Applying for the loan makes a business harmed by the COVID-19 response eligible for a grant that can provide an emergency advance of up to $10,000, which can be disbursed within three days.
The business owner must request the grant while applying for the loan, but it doesn’t have to be repaid and can be used for payroll, sick leave, increased costs because of supply-chain interruptions, or costs such as rent or mortgage. The loan is available through the Small Business Administration.
Another resource is the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, which Kurrle said was a loan program designed to keep workers on the payroll. The program gives loans of up to $10 million, and Kurrle said the payments will be deferred for the first six months.
For businesses that can maintain their workforce, the SBA will forgive the first eight weeks of payroll. Kurrle called it a “significant incentive.”
Harrington began his remarks by acknowledging that many Vermonters were struggling to reach his department with unemployment questions and concerns, as well as attempts to file an application.
Harrington said the labor department had added staff, and the technical staff members were doing what they could to allow the system to do more.
The labor department has gotten more claims in the past two weeks than they do in a typical year, Harrington said. He estimated there were 30,000 to 40,000 claims filed in the last 2½ weeks.
“In some cases, I would also say that we are ahead of the game in terms of being able to get forms online and people connected with an individual on the other end of a phone line. Many states have shut down their phone lines completely, or have turned to us (to see) how we’re managing it. But, again, I know that’s little solace for those people who are struggling to get through to us,” he said.
The labor department has waived work-search requirements and shortened the time needed to provide funds for qualified applicants. People who are considered “able and available” are being approved if they are home because of self-quarantine or compliance with Scott’s directives to “Stay Home, Stay Safe.”
Benefits have been extended to those staying home to care for a loved one with COVID-19, or people in a high-risk group for COVID-19, and employers forced to layoff staff because of the pandemic.
Vermont unemployment benefits “max out” at 26 weeks, but Harrington said the federal government had extended that period by 13 weeks.
Harrington said he expected the “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” which will help those who are self-employed and independent contractors would need to be more of a “team effort across state government.”
“I imagine that it will be some partnership between us, as well as the tax department, to determine eligibility for these folks and what their weekly benefit amount is. We did something similar to this during Hurricane Irene but that was on a much smaller scale,” he said.
Harrington said that program will likely not be set up for a couple of weeks.
Kurrle said the governor also had tasked her agency with putting together an economic mitigation and recovery task force.
“We are actively building this task force with experts from the hardest hit sectors along with expertise from lenders, financial advisers and others to navigate mitigation efforts as well as develop additional tools for employers,” she said.
Kurrle called the programs a “start,” but said state officials knew they would “have to do more.”
The pandemic is having a profound effect on Vermont communities. The daily update from the Vermont Department of Health identified 28 new cases of COVID-19 and three new deaths.
As of Wednesday, the state has identified 321 cases of COVID from 4,495 tests. The total on Tuesday was 293 positive tests.
Vermont has recorded 16 deaths attributed to COVID-19. The total number of deaths on Tuesday was 13.
This week, the health department began to list some hospitalization data but cautioned the numbers were being tracked by the Vermont Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Coalition and is based on hospitals updating this information as they are able.
On Wednesday, the state had 30 patients hospitalized for COVID and 45 patients hospitalized while being tested for COVID. The numbers Tuesday were 21 hospitalized patients with COVID and 52 hospitalized who were being tested for COVID.
Two health departments also noted that additional COVID-19 testing sites opened in Essex and Grand Isle counties recently. The sites are at the Island Pond Health Center in Island Pond and at the Champlain Islands Health Center in South Hero.
It is still necessary to get a referral from a health care provider before being tested.
Asked about why the new centers were opened in the two Vermont counties that have reported no cases of COVID, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said the centers would help Vermont medical professionals to determine whether those results were due to a lack of COVID or a lack of testing.
Spartan Arena will serve as a back-up location to Rutland Regional Medical Center if the hospital becomes overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
In an email sent out to community leaders Tuesday evening, RRMC CEO Claudio Fort said the arena, which Castleton University has continued to operate since Diamond Run Mall closed last year, was the best location to accommodate a “patient surge.”
A discussion of what will be needed to make the site operational is scheduled for today.
“The State of Vermont Emergency Management Agency and the Agency of Human Services have been actively involved in this planning effort,” Fort wrote. “We would need their resources in order to stand up this type of facility. In addition, in order to operate an alternative care site of this scale would require the full support and engagement of every one of our Rutland County health care providers along with most of your agencies and organizations.”
Fort said RRMC has an average occupancy of 87 medical, surgical and intensive care patients. The hospital has contingency planning that could handle up to 195 patients at the Allen Street facility with the help of outside resources for staffing and equipment.
If that turns out not to be enough, Fort said, Spartan Arena can hold up to 150 more patients.
Meanwhile, local officials have been working on identifying facilities to provide emergency housing for people who need to quarantined but cannot do so at home.
“Any of the assisted living facilities — they will not be able to shelter there,” said United Way of Rutland County Executive Director Caprice Hover. “They would need to be moved so they’re not contaminating anybody else there. If an employee at the hospital needs to be isolated, they don’t want to send them home to their family where they might infect someone else.”
With all that comes logistical concerns, Hover said, like making sure the people in quarantine get three meals a day.
“If someone’s in substance abuse treatment, we’re going to need to figure out how to get them the medicine they need,” she said.
Hover said they are working with the state to select a “backbone organization” that would see such an effort — at a time when all such groups in the area are already overtaxed — which would then work to identify the best facility for such housing.
The state is looking for volunteer medical personnel to comprise an on-call corps to “help our current health care workers and strengthen Vermont’s response” to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. A2
Loan fund set
Rutland City has created a $100,000 emergency loan fund for local business affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, to help cover expenses they couldn’t otherwise because of loss of business. A3
Iconic TV sportscaster, who touched the lives of countless viewers and players, remembered for his signature sign-off, “Good night, good sports.” B1