WCMA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

Your Business is Your Workforce

John Umhoefer executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

April 3, 2020


This is the most significant business disruption of your career. Or you’ve had a pretty rough career.

The dairy processing industry is in such as state of flux that any written description of the extent of the disruption caused by COVID-19 will be out of date in days, if not hours.

WCMA has been talking with international processors, cooperatives and artisans producing dairy products against the backdrop of a near complete loss of foodservice sales in the US, rollercoaster retail and industrial sales, falling commodity markets and a strong milk supply.

These turbulent market forces are layered over the potential for your production team, sales force and administrative staff to be challenged by needs at home, or illness, or the threat of illness.

Here’s what WCMA has distilled from these conversations so far:
1) Today, you are not a dairy business, you are a worker-retention business. Your job is to protect, inspire and talk straight with your team.

2) Real business aid is streaming from state and federal programs, and Congress and the Trump administration are layering new emergency funds to extend paid sick leave, create SBA loans with largely forgivable payback, offer staff retention credits against the payroll tax you pay the government, and more. Engage your business management staff, your accountant, your law firm in making these programs work for you as soon as possible.

3) The US government, through USDA, should buy a variety of dairy products now, with an emphasis on foodservice-bound commodities, for reuse in feeding programs. Supply chains cannot adapt quickly enough to the instant closure of 40 percent of the market for America’s nutritious, yet perishable, dairy products.

What a difference a month makes. WCMA completed the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison 30 days ago, with concern for the two dozen COVID-19 cases on the West Coast, trade shows and conferences beginning to react and problems with supply chains in China.

As of this writing, a month later, confirmed COVID-19 illnesses have topped 200,000, every event in America is cancelled or postponed, and supply chains domestically and internationally are threatened by market access and available workforce.

Which brings us back to the first point above.

In March, your dairy team joined the elite designation of essential critical infrastructure workers, a US Department of Homeland Security designation uniformly adopted by states as orders to shelter in place (or “hunker down” as the Mayor of Anchorage put it) spread across the nation.

Today, you must set aside productivity and recognize that protecting and supporting your workforce – your people – is the single highest priority for your business. Provide your teams with the ability to remain separated in their workspace, on breaks and at lunch. Enhance their safety and peace of mind with daily screening for symptoms and elevated temperature. Build another layer of sanitation into your already food-safe environment – sanitize every chair and door handle, tabletop and rest area – and do it all day long. Talk with your teams every day about your goals for their health and safety at your plant, and adapt your benefits to improve your ability let symptomatic workers go home without the worry of lost wages.

Dairy plants are creating small teams to separate larger groups that may have worked side by side. Plants are creating mirror teams with full capability of running key operations and having these teams work on alternating days. Plants are turning office spaces into reserve break rooms and limiting the amount of staff on break at any one time. Plants are insisting their workforce not travel, they are taking daily temperatures of everyone on a shift and one plant is taking their temperature again when they depart for home.

Every dairy plant with a retail store that WCMA has contacted has closed that store both for the safety of consumers and their workforce. Some are experimenting with curbside service from orders called in.

At this time, the dairy workforce is showing its tenacity and strength. Your team is coming to work every day and making the dairy products our nation, and the world, needs. Tap the pride that you and your workers feel for being an essential industry. And enact policies for distancing, sanitizing and leave that let them know you truly care.


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by Cheese Reporter columnists are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cheese Reporter.



John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org

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