US consumer goods companies, some of them engaged in safety and healthcare products for COVID-19, want their workers to have access to vaccines first. (Image used for illustrative purposes.) Image Credit: Bloomberg

Washington: A lobbying group that represents US consumer-goods companies - from Procter & Gamble Co. to General Mills Inc. - says the industry's employees need priority access to a vaccine as rising COVID-19-related absenteeism strains manufacturing capabilities.

The Consumer Brands Association has already sent about 40 letters to state and federal health officials such as the Centers for Disease Control requesting a comprehensive plan for distributing the vaccine to company workforces. With 1.2 million employees across an industry that has boosted production of essential goods like disinfecting wipes and packaged food, the association has "serious concern" over the distribution process, said Bryan Zumwalt, its executive vice-president of public affairs.

"We're in a situation where unfortunately we may have to play whack-a-mole at the state level in trying to deal with each of the challenges. This is crunch time."

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Hitting production

As cases increase in hot spots throughout the US, manufacturing facilities are becoming strained by the absence of infected or exposed employees. Companies have been forced to remove handfuls of employees from production lines to prevent transmission of the virus, leading to reduced capacity of products in high demand.

The average rate of workforce absenteeism is 10 per cent among companies surveyed by the CBA. But in the worst cases, that rate has spiked to levels between 25-35 per cent. Workers can get sick from their colleagues or because of family members, spokeswoman Katie McBreen said.

"We've heard one story of a facility where 75 per cent of people were out and they had to do a partial shutdown for 2 weeks," McBreen said. She added that community spread among friends and family has been the main driver, rather than infection at places of work.

Not at work

"Manufacturers have put a robust series of protocols in place to keep workers safe on the job and it is, for the most part, working," McBreen said. "But what they do and what they're exposed to outside of work is out of employers' control."

The association hopes to have more clarity on states' effort to secure enough doses for companies based in their jurisdictions. However, it will be a constant hurdle to navigate statewide efforts until the distribution process is underway.