ATLANTA, GA. — Feed manufacturers have made changes, from eliminating travel and visitors to increasing collaboration and providing support on and off the clock in order to keep employees safe during the coronavirus pandemic, said Constance Cullman, president and chief executive officer of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA).

Cullman spoke at a virtual TECHTalk during the International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE). The IPPE, which was held online this year because of the virus, is typically at the end of January in Atlanta.

The AFIA sponsored a roundtable discussion in late 2020 with more than 50 people to learn what they did, how they adjusted and what they may keep doing in the future. Cullman shared the findings of that roundtable during her talk.

A top priority, Cullman said, was employee safety. To that end, companies adjusted sick leave policies so employees could stay home if they had COVID-19 symptoms or had to quarantine. They also stopped travel and limited visitors to their facilities.

Work from home was implemented to protect those employees whose presence was needed to get the job done. Open spaces where employees could congregate were shutdown and PPE was distributed.

Clear and timely communication was also critical, Cullman said. Companies added new methods of feedback so they would be aware of any challenges team members were facing.

“Transparency was very important, including letting employees know what was going on and how decisions were being made,” she said. “From top management down, an example was set about how to approach COVID. Consistency was key to be able to have all the team members on board.”

A third common theme among the roundtable participants was the importance of investing in the workforce on and off the clock, Cullman said. For example, some companies provided additional sick leave, covered the cost of testing and even provided testing.

“Many companies recognized the sacrifice that essential workers made was significant,” she said. “They offered bonuses to employees.”

Some offered health and wellness seminars and changed vacation policies so that days could be rolled over instead of lost.

“Many companies had virtual social interactions because that was missing from the normal day,” Cullman said. “It was a way to maintain the morale of employees.”

Easing the burden of work-life balance was even more important as employees dealt with childcare, school and other challenges. Some companies provided tutors or even helped employees’ children with science fair projects, Cullman said.

Mental health support was offered and upper management made sure to connect with employees, whether through a phone call, video conference or some other method.

Celebrating success was helpful in recognizing employees and keeping up morale, Cullman said. One company took out an ad in the local newspaper to recognize employees by name for the work they were doing to keep the food system running smoothly.

Lastly, collaboration was essential in handling the virus and its impact, Cullman said. This included development of cross functional response teams that could come together across all aspects of the company.

It also included working with local, state and federal governments on everything from essential worker classification to securing PPE.

Working closely with agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Health and Safety Association was important in order to understand guidelines.

“One thing that often times doesn’t happen is agencies were very open and ready to hear from companies about what challenges they were facing and what could be helpful for them,” Cullman said.

Stay up to date on news about the pet food processing industry on our News page.