GWINNER, N.D. — With more than seven months passed since the COVID-19 pandemic reached North Dakota, spread of the virus is "minimal to non-existent" at Bobcat’s factory in Gwinner, United Steelworkers Local 560 President William Wilkinson told The Forum last week.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Wilkinson and the union raised concerns with The Forum that COVID-19 could "spread unchecked" at the facility without implementation of social distancing and other protocols. Part of the critical manufacturing sector, Doosan Bobcat is among the 16 critical infrastructure sectors as determined by the United States Department of Homeland Security, meaning employees were considered essential when the pandemic began.

Doosan Bobcat shut down its Minnesota and North Dakota production facilities from April 6 to 20, a move which Wilkinson suspected was not in response to the union’s concerns. Shortly thereafter, the Gwinner facility was closed again after an employee reported a presumptive COVID-19 case.

As recently as May 2, Wilkinson reported to The Forum that 96% of union members voted to support a motion of no confidence in the company’s management, a figure he called "staggering but not surprising" at the time.

Since the spring, working conditions in Gwinner have improved significantly, Wilkinson said. "[Conditions] have changed quite a bit. The company does their own contract tracing now, so if someone tests positive and they notify the union or the company, we immediately start asking them who they’ve been around," he explained, "It has kept the spread here to minimal to non-existent."

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Of the 1,600 employees who work at the Gwinner facility, approximately 90 have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, Wilkinson said, adding that most cases have emerged outside of the work environment.

"We don't wait for the state to get involved, we get involved right away," Wilkinson said of the facility's contact tracing efforts. "'When in doubt, just stay out,' is what I've been telling [employees]."

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

Doosan Bobcat North America corporate communication and public affairs director Stacey Breuer said that health and safety of employees is a "top priority," prompting the firm to implement mandatory mask-wearing when social distancing cannot be maintained, limit visitors and conduct temperature screenings in addition to contact tracing. The company also emphasizes that employees should follow health guidelines when not at work, she added.

"After we went to the news, it's been pretty much a mutual relationship," Wilkinson said.

Still, Wilkinson explained, Bobcat's extensive contact tracing has resulted in a less-than-ideal outcome: extended shifts for employees. "The most pain for us is not the safety now, it’s the production woes," he said. "Somebody gets sick and they take a bunch of people out to keep everybody safe." As a result, employees have been tasked with working greater 12-hour shifts, resulting in overlap between shifts which Wilkinson said could lead to COVID-19 spreading.

Wilkinson said both the union and the company have been monitoring Gov. Doug Burgum's decision to rescind quarantine orders for close contacts of COVID-19-positive individuals if both individuals were properly wearing masks.

"We seriously have concerns about that because we have people who don't think that masks are that effective or effective at all," Wilkinson said.

Non-compliant individuals would have faced Class B misdemeanor charges. The move, which broke from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, was intended to incentivize more North Dakotans to wear masks, Burgum said.

"We've been very successful with our contact tracing. Now if everyone's got a mask on, people don't go out for contact tracing anymore," Wilkinson explained. "That is our big concern and we raised that with Bobcat when the governor rolled it back and they said that we would all mutually monitor that."

As of Thursday afternoon, Oct. 15, Gwinner's Sargent County reported 17 active COVID-19 cases, one of the lowest figures of any county in the state. The North Dakota Department of Health listed Sargent County as a "low risk" county on its Smart Restart Roadmap. With a population of 3,870, Sargent County is one of 16 low-risk counties, most of which are also sparsely-populated. However, numerous employees at the Gwinner plant travel to work from other higher-risk areas of the state such as Fargo, Grand Forks and Jamestown.

Though Wilkinson said he wasn't aware of any employees who had left their positions due to feeling unsafe amidst the pandemic, Doosan Bobcat recently announced plans to hire more than 100 new full-time employees across North Dakota.

"It's a good thing," Wilkinson said. "We want them. It's a great paying job here and we're open to expansion. The more people that we can have working here is the better for North Dakota and our communities."

Breuer attributed the new hirings to rising demand for Bobcat products across the country.