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Behlen staying strong, safe amid COVID-19 pandemic
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Behlen staying strong, safe amid COVID-19 pandemic

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As one of the biggest employers in the area and with plants all over the nation, Behlen Mfg. Co. has managed to keep business steady despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thanks, in part, to its staff.

At its Columbus headquarters, according to Behlen Mfg. Co. Chairman and CEO Phil Raimondo, the company is running all three shifts (morning, afternoon and night).

“First and foremost, we really appreciate our people staying healthy and safe during this time because all it takes is one person acting irresponsible,” Raimondo said. “Everyone has done a great job not only at work staying healthy and safe, but also when they’re not at work. … We really appreciate that.”

Like everyone else, Behlen has been forced to adjust to the pandemic, and it hasn’t always been easy.

Behlen prides itself on family atmosphere while growing

“Some people who work at Behlen got very concerned, to the point they could not do a job here because they were so scared and concerned about the situation,” Raimondo said. “Those cases we could have people work from home, we let them.”

Raimondo said the local plant had five Partners-In-Progress (employees) who tested positive for COVID-19 at its Columbus plant, 4025 23rd St. E, though none of them had worked in the building for at least three or four days before they did. The last positive case confirmed of a Partner In Progress was back on May 9, he added.

“Fortunately, we’ve not had any positives since then,” Raimondo stressed. “And when we did have those cases, we have our first responder team that had been trained and is trained to go do a cleanup if we feel there was someone who tested positive and left work. We’ve done that a couple of times where people who left and didn’t feel good, but they didn’t necessarily test positive. It was a precaution.”

There have also been a few people who had relatives that tested positive, so those team members self-quarantined, Raimondo said, adding the company works closely with East-Central District Health Department to keep everyone safe and follows Directed Health Measures.

Behlen has approximately 700 people at its 870,000-square-foot Columbus site that includes office space and the manufacturing plant itself. The company, which is celebrating 36 years of local ownership, has implemented numerous enhanced safety precautions in light of the pandemic. Its front door is locked and no visitors are allowed without a scheduled appointment. All visitors are required to wear masks.

All Partners In Progress now have their temperatures checked upon starting their shift and are encouraged to wash their hands even more; Clorox wipes are used on work stations frequently; and meetings are limited to no more than 10 people in a room or conducted over Zoom. Staff is not required to wear masks; however, Raimondo said the company distributes them regularly and about 20-30% utilize them.

Most work stations were already spread out, but Raimondo said there has been a ton of emphasis on social distancing the last couple of months.

In the cafeteria, tables have been put up against the wall and currently only carry out or takeout is available (the salad bar has been axed for now).

“And it’s cashless,” Raimondo said. “It is set up so there is an ability to do a payroll deduction from the cafeteria using a Behlen access ID card … We really started changing a lot of things on March 16.”

Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Schieffer praised the company for its efforts.

“Behlen Mfg. Co. is an exceptional corporation, and Columbus is fortunate their headquarters are located here …” Schieffer said. “Behlen Mfg. Co. has always been a safety-conscious company; but its commitment to the health of its employee during this time is yet another reason why it is a special employer in our community.”

The pandemic has had an effect on the business financially. Raimondo said Behlen started its new year back in November. In the first four months, he said the company was off to a better start than the previous year.

“And 2019 was a pretty good year for us,” he said.

The company consists of three diverse business units: Behlen Country, Behlen Building Systems, and International and Diversified Products (Grain Systems, Strip Joining Presses, and Custom Fabrication). Raimondo said lower-ticket items like bale feeders are selling well, but acknowledged big-ticket items like grain bins and buildings are down approximately 60% from 2019.

“Larger building projects are harder to get an order,” he said.

Behlen also has plants in Omaha, Baker City, Oregon; McGregor, Texas; and Sarasota, Florida. Raimondo said the company reduced its workforce at the Omaha plant by about 20 people earlier this year, though later brought back 10 who were laid off.

In Columbus, he said 25-30 people are working from home, while 10 people in manufacturing/direct labor have taken a voluntary layoff or are on short-term disability.

Although Behlen is adapting to the new normal, Raimondo acknowledged he is unsure of when and even if things will ever return to the way they once were.

“To me, it sure seems like unless there is a cure or vaccine that comes out, we’re going to be in this mode for quite a while,” said Raimondo, noting nobody has traveled in the company for work in the last few months and it hasn’t been able to have one of its signature Partners In Progress cookouts. “Even after that, I think some of the changes we’ve made in how we do things are just going to stay the way they are. I hope we get back to being able to shake hands, but I’m not sure we ever will.”

None of Behlen’s plants have had to close due to the pandemic, Raimondo said, stressing again that he’s proud of all of the company’s Partners in Progress for their efforts. Leaders are considering reopening office doors to the public on June 1.

“When walking into the plant, I think people are very proud to be working at Behlen,” he said. “And I’m excited we’ve been able to stay open and give people the opportunity to work. We’re able to take care of our customers because people are doing the right things.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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Managing Editor

Matt Lindberg is an award-winning journalist and graduate of the University of Kansas.

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