GWINNER, N.D. — Fears of the coronavirus spreading “unchecked” at Doosan Bobcat of Gwinner have prompted workers and union reps to begin negotiations with corporate management to set up safeguards inside the manufacturing plant.

So far, however, little has been done to help workers with social distancing, and special concern for the elderly and those with preexisting conditions is rising, said William Wilkinson, president of the United Steelworkers Local 560. He’s in charge of 1,350 people who travel daily from Jamestown, Fargo, Grand Forks and elsewhere every morning and cannot practice social distancing inside the manufacturing environment.

“There is a lot of concern about COVID-19, a lot of concern about high-risk people working here, so we’re trying to negotiate a deal with the company, and it’s taking longer than expected and employees here are panicking. We got thousands of people coming to work here, and if one guy comes in here with it, it will spread unchecked. We understand we need to keep working, but we’re trying to put a bunch of safeguards in to protect families and the community,” Wilkinson said.

William Wilkinson, president of Unted Steelworkers Local 560. Special to The Forum
William Wilkinson, president of Unted Steelworkers Local 560. Special to The Forum

“I could live with maybe (having it be) a little more difficult to make money, but if anyone dies, I cannot live with that,” Wilkinson said. “Bobcat is a great place to work, and this is something no one has ever had to deal with before.”

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Workers who live in Minnesota were notified that because the company is labelled as critical manufacturing, they are required to show up for work, Wilkinson said.

The critical manufacturing sector is among 16 industries that are crucial to the economic prosperity and continuity of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Seventeen days ago, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued a declaration of emergency because of the pandemic that has so far infected 109 people and caused three deaths in the state, according to the state’s Department of Health. Although there are many types of coronavirus, the illness that leads to COVID-19 can have up to a 14-day incubation period, health officials said.

Stacey Breuer, director of corporate communication and public affairs for Doosan Bobcat North America, said the pandemic has created a unique environment for Bobcat. They plan to protect the health and safety of employees and continue on with business.

So far, Bobcat of Gwinner has reduced the number of employees at shift start-up meetings, advised employees to follow CDC hygiene protocols, told employees to stay home if they're not feeling well, added additional cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, increased cleaning staff, limited outside visitors and had an onsite nurse available, Breuer said.

The company has put some safeguards in place, but they’re not enough, Wilkinson said. There are no available masks or hand sanitizer as the products are in high demand across the nation, workers said, contradicting Breuer. Each workstation has been provided with bleach cleaner, which they spray down every 10 minutes.

“The whole process is like playing Russian roulette with your job,” said Mike Peterson, a Bobcat of Gwinner welder. “Spouses of employees are getting tested and they’re putting the person right back in the workforce until they get the results of the test.

Mike Peterson Special to The Forum
Mike Peterson Special to The Forum

“Now it’s downright scary. I’m working with someone right now who is showing flu-like symptoms, but he doesn't have a fever so he’s going back to work. This is everywhere around the plant.”

All employees interviewed said Bobcat of Gwinner has been a great place to work, but are worried about contracting COVID-19.

“It’s been a great place to work, it provides for my family, I’ve made lasting friendships, I feel we are making a quality product that is needed, but yet, as of right now, I just don’t see how it’s essential, especially for us who are high-risk,” Natalia Heitkamp, a line worker, said. She has rheumatoid arthritis and has worked at the plant for more than eight years.

“It’s very disheartening to feel that I’m just a number. Eight years might not seem super long as compared to other employees, but for eight years it’s been my everything, and to sit back and feel that I am just a number,” Heitkamp said.

Natalia Heitkamp Special to The Forum
Natalia Heitkamp Special to The Forum

Peterson is a “proud 20-year veteran” of Bobcat of Gwinner, he said, and also has diabetes.

“I would just like to see them put some sort of plan forward, get the higher risk people out of here, get the elderly out of here. I want to see a little concern coming from them, and right now we’re not seeing anything. I haven't seen anyone from the office since this started,” Peterson said.

Wilkinson, who works as a welder at Bobcat of Gwinner, said if the plant is hit by the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19, a third of the workforce composed of elderly and those with preexisting conditions would be in danger.

"We have not had any positive cases in our Gwinner facility, though if we do, we will notify employees who may have come in contact with that individual, shut down that portion of the factory, conduct a deep cleaning, then reopen when it is safe to do so," Breuer said.

So far, workers interviewed said the company has not begun making respirators or any other equipment health officials need during the pandemic. Doosan Bobcat is a manufacturer of construction equipment, power and water solutions, engines and engineering, according to the company's website.