By Heather van Blokland
Gov. Doug Ducey dropped his statewide stay-at-home order mandate in mid-May, encouraging Arizonans to reopen business and support economic recovery. The Fixture Zone, a Valley-based company, began a new manufacturing line during the stay-at-home order. Now that the state has reopened, the company is still manufacturing new products.
"When I get home, the first thing I do is I wash my hands, I wash my face — before I even touch my babies. You know that’s been a big difference in our lives right now. You know, we have to make sure that we’re staying clean and everything like that," said Raymon Ortiz, warehouse and transportation manager. He's worked there for 3.5 years. His job is to get the orders to the trucks as quickly as possible for shipping.
The company installs shelving, fixtures and displays in grocery stores and retailers across the Valley. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in February and stay-at-home orders went into effect, work orders for Ortiz almost stopped — and his life changed.
"It’s kind of different. We can’t go out too much. I don’t really like going out. If we do go out, we’re always protected. You know, I have two babies at home. I have a 1-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old grandson so those are my main concerns right now," said Ortiz.
Pivoting to a “COVID-19 daily life" for Ortiz and his family has not been easy. As a manufacturing employee, he can’t work from home. And if he stays home, he doesn’t get to work — or get paid. That’s only available for certain kinds of jobs.
"Right now, my wife is working from home. She’s a senior accounts payable manager. And everybody is at home, right now, ya know. She works from home and every time she goes out, I make sure she has her face mask and her gloves and everything like that," he said.
The Fixture Zone is made up of Ortiz; another worker, Jose; and manager, Charles Sacks. At work, they keep six feet apart from one another now. And it’s going to stay that way for the time being.
The Fixture Zone opened in 1957. Sacks started with the company in 1991. The company supplies the racks, hangers, the shelves in stores that hold hooks. It’s also the big containers that hold ketchup and mustard packets at restaurants. Goodwill of Arizona is one of the biggest buyers of Fixture Zone products.
"So the dump-ins that anything promotional, uh hooks, the shelves throughout the store, beverage racks, snack racks, if you go into a Fry’s and you see a free-standing wire shelf display with a bunch of nuts on it, that would probably come from us through one of our snack food companies that we work with," Sacks said.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Sacks has stayed in business and kept his employees working by learning everything there is to know about making products that support COVID-19 relief.
"You know, we started with hand-sanitizer stands and then we started, as well, importing the face masks. Everything we’re doing here is through our natural, existing pipeline of suppliers, so it really was just a natural transition of ‘well, instead of selling a shelf, now we’re selling a face-shield,'" he said.
"Everything we’re doing here is through our natural, existing pipeline of suppliers, so it really was just a natural transition of ‘well, instead of selling a shelf, now we’re selling a face-shield.'"
— Charles Sacks, Fixture Zone manager
As long as they are manufacturing, they are in business — a business that cannot stay at home. So instead of selling to retail grocers and convenience stores, the company now sells to senior care facilities, hospitals, army hospitals and individual consumers.
"The face masks are going more towards everyday people, the retail convenience grocery sector for their workers, less for the medical use of the face masks," said Sacks. And while Arizona reopens, Sack’s new manufacturing focus, ironically, is booming as COVID-19 cases increase across the state.
A March report from the National Association of Manufacturers found more than 50% of manufacturers have changed some part of their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the strange side effects of the pandemic is that it is really highlighting differences in labor classes in the U.S., according to Doug Guthrie, professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU. "Now that’s a really powerful thing because that actually means that building, rebuilding manufacturing in America is not just about cheap labor and opening the borders, it’s also about rebuilding vocational education," he said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 6% of manufacturing workers can do any part of their job from home. For Ortiz, it's been an adjustment. "My daily routine a month ago was shipping out a dozen shipments to our customers, and now, it’s about one or two if that," said Ortiz.
"There’s growth and then contraction. You know, there’s the streamlining process of inventory and how are you selling things," said Sacks.
How things are sold may change as the future of manufacturing labor may not be labor at all, but something technological and based on artificial intelligence solutions that fill labor needs in times of crisis.