Crane Stationery got marching orders on reopening; CEO claims 'retaliation'

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NORTH ADAMS — Scores of Crane Stationery Co. employees got head-turning emails from their company Sunday.

Time to get back to work, said the first. "We have a hard road ahead in the coming weeks and months, but we have over 800 orders and boxed product that needs to be replenished for our customers," executives told workers.

Three hours later, another email: Don't come in.

After being closed for more than five weeks, the fabled brand spent the last few days gearing up to reopen its North Adams plant, after its owner, Mohawk Fine Papers of Cohoes, N.Y., secured a roughly $2 million federal loan to cover payroll of its 229 workers.

But that changed midday Sunday, when the company took issue with conditions Mayor Thomas Bernard set on the reopening to ensure safety amid the pandemic and to verify the work qualifies as "essential" under rules set out by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Thomas D. O'Connor Jr., Mohawk's CEO and chairman, said Crane could not meet Bernard's requests in time to begin work Monday. In an interview Sunday, O'Connor called Bernard's conditions "retaliatory" and questioned the future of Crane operations in North Adams.

"He wants to come in and monitor what we print," O'Connor said of the mayor. "He doesn't have the right to look at private invoices."

"This is meant to hang us up to keep us closed. We feel like we're being run out of town. It's clearly retaliation," O'Connor said.

Not so, Bernard said Sunday.

"I don't play retaliatory leadership. I am trying, in a difficult situation, to enable this business to meet their essential operations and do it in a way that is safe," Bernard said. "I want them to be in a position where they can succeed."

Employees were told in a Sunday afternoon email that Crane needed more time to put together the reopening plan and that only those able to clock in remotely would be working. The message, from the same three executives, made no mention of the company's dispute with the city. Copies of the emails were obtained by The Eagle.

Bernard's conditions, outlined Sunday, required Crane to allow health and building inspectors inside its Curran Highway buildings to check on safety precautions. Further, Bernard asked Crane to explain in writing to the city's Board of Health the precautions it will take to protect employees from possible contagion, as well as document that all of the work it will do qualifies as "essential."

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The company cannot reopen, the mayor said, until its plans receive written approval from the city.

O'Connor, the Mohawk Fine Papers chief, likened those steps to harassment. "They have been threatening us all weekend," he said. "I don't know what the future is with the plant. I don't know if we will reopen — or when we will."

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said that as mayor, Bernard has the authority to determine how state orders play out at the local level. "He absolutely made the right decision that's in the best interest of the city and the employees who work there," Barrett said of the mayor's conditions.

"The proof of the pudding is the reaction he got from Crane, which just wants to stomp away and make another threat," he said.

What's `essential'?

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Bernard spent the last few days responding, first, to the announcement that the company plans to lay off 85 percent of its workers June 19. Though a Wednesday email to workers spoke of plans to "wind down" operations, the company said Thursday it plans to continue to make Crane products, though with a far smaller workforce of about three dozen employees, as it copes with a massive drop in business.

The same day it announced future layoffs, Crane said it would restart operations Monday and run with full staffing until June 19, provided that employees were willing to return. In an email, the company said it would respect the wishes of workers who did not want to go back for health reasons.

Bernard said the company told him late last week that it qualified as an essential business, but did not have that documented. The question lingered into the weekend, when Len Evers, a safety inspector with the state Department of Labor Standards, issued a determination. The department is the state agency that rules on whether a business can operate amid the restrictions.

Evers conducted a review Saturday, based on a request to the DLS from Bart Robinson, Crane's chief revenue officer.

Robinson told Evers in an email that the company went through "a small percentage" of its existing orders from customers and found that it would be making stationery for "medical professionals and medical support companies, energy and environment companies, law offices performing essential work and advisory companies that support small business."

Robinson said that while Crane can't confirm whether the stationery will be used for "essential" work, the orders would be shipped to home addresses "for work from home communication."

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He added, "We also do work for Vice President Pence's wife."

About four hours later, Evers said he'd visited Crane's website and determined that since the company's business stationery is used by medical professionals and other essential services, it also qualified as an essential business.

"Even in this digital age, it is hard to imagine a law or medical office without paper to memorialize their activities," Evers wrote.

But he said not all Crane business may qualify and he encouraged the company to stop any nonessential work, or have it done remotely. Evers acknowledged, though, that the state has not halted operations at companies, like big-box stores, that straddle the line on what's "essential."

That opinion from the DLS led Bernard to ask that Crane document which of its orders qualified as essential.

Bernard said he has been hearing from Crane workers concerned about whether it is safe to return to a work environment. "I felt it prudent to put some conditions in place, to find an appropriate middle ground."

In the company's first Sunday email, the executives — Robinson, Chief Operations Officer Dean Daigle and Chief Product Officer Paul Thorogood — addressed worker fears.

"We understand there is concern among some employees about returning to work at this time, and whether Crane is deemed an essential business," they wrote. "Our first and foremost priority is now, and always will be, for the safety and well-being of our employees. Creating a work environment in which everyone feels safe is crucial."

The message lists 14 steps the company planned to take to provide a safe work environment, including "deep sanitation," new workplace layouts that ensure six feet of distance between people and staggered shifts to avoid bunching up.

Bernard said he asked Robinson to consider voluntarily delaying the Monday opening. "I take great exception to the term `threat,'" he said, referring to a statement by O'Connor. "I'm trying to navigate something very carefully. The implicit threat is on the side of Mohawk and is directed at the hard-working people who have given their heart and soul to building this brand."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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