TRENTON, N.J.—From a business standpoint, Home Rubber Co. has been fortunate through the coronavirus pandemic thus far.
None of the employees at the Trenton-based producer of specialty hose products have tested positive for the virus, although about five of the 40-plus staff members have lost family members, according to Rich Balka, president and owner of Home Rubber and sister company custom mixer Ivanhoe Rubber.
"They were not necessarily living with them, but were elderly or in some diminished medical state," he said.
The wife of one employee did test positive, and that sent ripples through the factory. The employee, though, tested negative and his wife's condition has improved since, Balka said.
While New Jersey was one of the early hot spots for COVID-19, most of the cases were north of Trenton, basically in the suburbs of New York, he said, though it has been working its way down the state.
Home Rubber and Ivanhoe have stayed operational as an essential manufacturer, and spent a good deal of time working down a business backlog as incoming orders started to fall.
"We were behind before all this started because of a series of unrelated factory personnel issues," he said. "For us, we had the backlog going into this to sustain us for awhile. When we look at our incoming orders, that's where my greatest concern is."
The company's orders are stronger than Balka thought they might be, "but certainly not commensurate with where they have been in the past year and leading up to COVID. While we have the work right now, the question is how much work will there be six to eight weeks from now."
Looking at individual markets, he said the steel industry has been slow, but that is tied to the dropping fortunes of the oil and gas industry. There is a segment of OEM business in the converting industry that has remained strong, but Balka said much of that is customers making toilet paper and paper towels.
"One of our customers in that segment said repairs right now are through the roof," he said. "Our sense is there is going to be a strong repair and replacement market, but the capital projects are probably going to be pushed out 12-18 months, because everybody needs to see how this all sorts out. And when it does sort out, are they going to have the money? Are they going to have the borrowing capacity? And, are they going to have the appetite for borrowing for new projects until the dust settles?"
Soon after COVID-19 fears began to spread, Home Rubber started taking precautions. It started having daily meetings for executives to work out what was going on and what they needed to do. Early steps included having anyone work from home who could.
"Factory-wise we started different cleaning regimes," Balka said. "Basically, we were following OSHA and CDC guidelines as well as we could, washing down high-touch areas three times a day. We had regular meetings in the factory to explain safety protocols."
In addition, masks were required of workers who had to be near another employee in the shop. For the most part, the workers are able to stay away from one another, but one challenge is not knowing who they are in contact with after leaving work.
When masks were scarce in the area and prices began to soar, Balka reached out to a customer in China, who sent them hospital masks. "My contact went out and bought them and sent them to me on their dime," he said. "I thought that was truly a nice gesture. It's further proof that being in a global economy has its upsides."
Home Rubber was notified, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, when the spouse of the employee tested positive. The worker was sent home and not allowed to come back until his COVID-19 test came back negative.
After this, one employee who had lost two relatives in New York to the virus immediately left and said he would come back if the employee tested negative. He also self-quarantined for two weeks. "I think that's just a misunderstanding of how the whole thing should work," Balka said. "At the same time, I understand his fear, having lost an uncle and nephew to this."
Home Rubber did apply for and receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan that will give it a bit of flexibility going forward. "Right now, we have the work, but I anticipate we won't have that level of work in the upcoming weeks," he said. "So, it's certainly going to keep us from not having to make cuts moving forward.
"At least we can plan for the next four months because I know what my backlog is now. I know if it plummets I've got two months of payroll following that. That's as far as I can look, quite frankly."