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Local manufacturers say supply chain is broken

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—A shortage of truck drivers and other supply chain issues are driving up prices and holding back the economy, business owners said.

“The supply chain is broken today and we definitely cannot ignore it,” said Jim Brill, of Seymour, Wis.-based Performance Corp., which has a sawmill plant in Carney.

“Because it is broken, it’s going to come at a cost to all of us at a consumer level, which we’re already starting to see. The cost of our clothing, the cost of our food is increasing,” Brill said.

But most people will do without an item if the price is too high. Bob Anderson, co-owner with wife Lois of Anderson Manufacturing Co. in Menominee, said he has slowed down production of his wooden storage beds because he doesn’t think people will pay enough to make a profit. “You’d have to raise your prices so much, people won’t buy it,” he said. At the high end, his large beds cost $6,000 or $7,000, and the customer assembles the bed when it arrives in a box.

The price of the lumber and the cost of shipping it to Anderson Manufacturing Co. is so high, Lois said the company has scaled back operations to six part-time workers. She attributed the problem to COVID and workers staying home. “People used to come here looking for a job,” Lois said. “Not anymore.”

Against this backdrop, U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican who represents Michigan’s 1st Congressional District, joined 159 other Republicans in signing a letter to President Joe Biden stating, “we refuse to stand by and watch as your Administration dilutes America’s ability to ensure the safe and efficient movement of goods, people and services throughout our transportation network.”

“We must address the global supply chain and ports crisis before Congress even considers additional social spending and taxation legislation. Our priority right now should be strengthening our nation’s economy and increasing our global competitiveness,” the Oct. 20 letter said.

Bergman also spoke before Congress recently opposing the Democrats’ $5.5 trillion spending bill, saying only a fraction will go to roads, bridges and broadband infrastructure.

The transportation and supply chain issues are so acute, Anderson Manufacturing Co has told many of its workers to stay home. It can’t make enough money on its bed sales to justify the cost of advertising to gain more sales.

While the price of the beds—$400 to $7,000, depending on size, number of storage drawers and type of wood—hasn’t changed, the cost of materials has increased substantially. A board that once cost $50 a sheet now costs $85, Bob Anderson said. Plywood that was $20 a sheet is now $65, he said.

“We cut our demand down by limiting our advertising,” Bob Anderson said.

Lois Anderson said the company has weathered many recessions since 1962 or 1963, when the storage bed company was launched. Its beds enjoyed strong mail-order sales for over a decade through Sears, Fingerhut and Wards, producing 300 beds a day and employing over 30 workers. Prior to that, the couple golf sporting equipment, furniture and sewing products. “When you’re a designer/inventor, you just make things and sell it,” Lois said. But that model isn’t working today, because the cost of materials and labor is wiping out most profits.

“A lot of it has to do with the government right now, how the government is operating. It’s causing a lot of problems,” Bob Anderson said.

With a shortage of truck drivers, it takes longer and costs more to get raw materials and goods delivered. Anderson Manufacturing builds custom beds from pine and oak supplied from the West, he said. “It’s because some of the sawmills have shut down. Everybody in the woodworking business is having trouble getting material,” he said.

“A lot of it has to do with the government right now, how the government is operating. It’s causing a lot of problems,” Bob Anderson said.

Lumber is plentiful in Northern Wisconsin, but Performance Corp. also has plenty of openings for workers. Brill said the labor shortage, including a shortage of truck drivers, is a national issue slowing the economic rebound. Performance Corp. plans to transfer 26 positions to Carney for its planned expansion, Brill said.

The company operates its own fleet of 50 semi-tractors and 500 trailers to move product from the Michigan sawmill, where logs are converted to lumber and transported to the Wisconsin plant for processing into pallets and crates.

Brill said Performance Corp. will be hiring machine operators, material handlers, truck drivers and supervisors as the company grows. “We are a company that’s always on a growth plan. Since inception, when I bought the (Carney) plant in 2001, we have grown tenfold,” in revenue, employees and footage, Brill said.

Asked what’s at the root of the labor shortage, Brill said, “We’ve got continued restrictions on business. COVID has definitely created a new environment for us to live and work in,” he said.

Biden’s executive order encouraging businesses with over 100 employees to require vaccinations is one restriction Performance Corp. has resisted. “Every individual has their own personal beliefs on the vaccination and as a great country we live in, that’s very important to allow freedom of choice,” he said. “I personally believe in the vaccine. However, being a business owner, I don’t think it’s the right place to provide any kind of mandate.”

Performance Corp., which plans to create 78 jobs in Carney, Mich., in the next three years as it expands its sawmill operation there, requires masks. Since the inception of COVID, “we have had less than 25 percent of our population out due to COVID-related illness or symptoms,” he said.

“COVID has shut down some sawmills in the past year plus due to outbreaks—not ours but others. Obviously when COVID first started, those first couple of months, there was a lot of fear and shutdowns due to the fear,” Brill said.

“The economy is strong, so the industrial capacity has not been able to pick up what we lost as well as the shortage of people in the workforce due to the stimulus packages the government has issued. There’s less employees for us to draw from,” Brill said.

The company strives to retain its workers by treating them like family. “We consistently watch the market and pay our employees at or above market. Also, we’re looking at any benefits to ensure they’re being taken care of.”

With open positions in Carney and Seymour, Brill said the social programs for COVID kept some workers out of the workforce for too long. “My concern is some of these employees are no longer in the work force. They’re no longer available because they’ve chosen not to be. We continue to increase our employee wages and at some point of time, people only need enough money to live on. They don’t always need more.”

All of the publicity about COVID case numbers, tests and vaccines presents a distraction to returning to business as usual. “It’s a bit of a fear-tactic approach,” Brill said. “We have a company to run and a country to run. The country really needs to run like a business.”

Peshtigo students Lakelyn Biehl and Desi Decamp canoe recently at Camp Bird. See story on A3.

Boy, 3, dies after falling into McCauslin Brook
  • Updated

OCONTO—A 3-year-old boy died Thursday in Oconto County.

According to Sheriff Todd Skarban, the Emergency Dispatch Center received a 911 call at about 4 p.m. Thursday in reference to a 3-year-old boy that had possibly fallen into the McCauslin Brook, located off County Trunk T near East Burnt Dam Road and Cassler Drive in the Town of Townsend.

Sheriff’s deputies and Lakewood/Townsend Ambulance Service and Townsend Fire Department responded.

Upon arrival, EMS/Fire Department members from Lakewood/Townsend Rescue and fire department personnel were able to locate and remove the child from the water. Life-saving measures were started immediately but were unsuccessful, Skarban said.

This incident remains under investigation by the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office and the Brown County Medical Examiner’s Office.

No names have been released.

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Journalists talk about covering immigrant stories for traveling exhibit
  • Updated

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MARINETTE—Bill Berry and Gary Porter—a seasoned journalist and a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, respectively—met over 40 years ago as young journalists at the Janesville Gazette. Since then, they have both used the power of storytelling to shed light on a myriad of topics including, more recently, on the subject of immigration for the traveling exhibit “Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border,” which will be on display at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) in Marinette through Friday.

Berry said the idea for the project originated with Dena Wortzel, the executive director of the nonprofit and National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate Wisconsin Humanities. Centro Hispano of Dane County, an organization that supports Latino families across the county, collaborated with Wisconsin Humanities on the project. The Marinette & Oconto Counties Literacy Council facilitated NWTC Marinette’s selection as one of the stops for the statewide exhibit tour.

The traveling exhibit features Ana Claudia, Fernando, Gilberto, Jennifer, Mario, Panfilo, Cinthia and Saul who hail from Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Uruguay. Berry and Porter worked with these participants to document their stories through words and photographs.

The history of immigration in Wisconsin

The influx of Hispanic and Latino communities into Wisconsin is only the most recent manifestation of immigration in the state.

“Immigration has been a part of the history of Wisconsin almost since its founding,” Berry said. “There were immigrants from Germany and Ireland, there were Cornish immigrants. Many of these people were leaving poverty and political strife. In many ways those stories are not that different than those of the immigrants who Gary and I have worked with.”

Both Porter and Berry said they have had opportunities to cover stories related to immigration throughout their careers in journalism.

Some of Berry’s earliest engagements with immigrant stories go back to August 1966 when migrant workers in Central Wisconsin marched for five days and 80 miles from Wautoma to Madison to demand improvements in their working conditions and wages. “It was quite a dramatic moment,” Berry said.

The impact of world events has also trickled down to communities across Wisconsin in the form of immigration.

In the 1970s and 80s following the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, Hmong refugees, some of whom had aided the U.S. in operations against the North Vietnamese, flooded into Wisconsin. The state now has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country.

Since their arrival, Hmong immigrants have become an integral part of communities across Wisconsin, Berry said.

“That was a big change for otherwise pretty homogenous communities,” Berry said. “It was a very difficult transition, both for the people who came here and for people who lived here.”

Berry said it has been interesting to observe how communities have evolved to integrate Hmong people.

“It’s been fun to see over the past 30 to 40 years or so how people in the Hmong community have integrated into life here, how they have been successful in many cases and how they have become a part of the fabric of our communities,” Berry said. “If you go to the farmers market here in Stevens Point, many of the vendors are Hmong. That’s just one example of how they’re integrated into this community.”

Porter said he went to Thailand in the early 2000s to cover a story about the closing of Hmong refugee camps in the country. He followed a group of Hmong refugees across the ocean to Wisconsin, documenting their transition from one world to another. Porter noted the “interesting contrast” between the experiences of these more recent immigrants and those who had migrated earlier and were thus more acclimated to life in Wisconsin.

Diversity within immigrant groups

These differences point to the diversity within immigrant groups that Berry and Porter hope is conveyed through the exhibit.

“Years ago it seemed a lot of the conversation was just, ‘they’re all from the same place, they have the same culture,’ which is just not true,” Porter said. “So we’re trying to dispel some of these myths.”

To this end, Berry said the exhibit tells the stories of immigrants working in different job sectors and living in various situations.

“Some of them are from the agricultural sector, one in a credit union, a Dreamer student, an organic farmer, a carpenter, health care providers,” he said. “Thanks to the people who helped us connect with these wonderful people and share their stories, we were able to get some balance in terms of where they are in the workforce.”

Changes in media coverage

This approach is reflective of changes in how news media have covered immigrant issues over the years.

Porter said that when he started working for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 1984, there was only one employee-the journalist and fourth-generation Mexican American Georgia Pabst-who could speak Spanish.

“The editors mostly gave her the assignments that were related to the Latino community in Milwaukee, but other people weren’t really asked to cover this topic,” he said.

But beginning around the mid-90s, Porter said there was a “real awakening to diversity” within the world of media.

“Before that, the newspaper neglected to cover minority communities most of the time,” he said. “There was a real push to diversify the staff and bring in minorities in the mid-90s in order to get a more rounded perspective, a truer perspective of the community.”

Nonetheless, mainstream media has room to improve in its coverage of immigration, Berry said.

“I think there are a lot of efforts to tell stories of today’s immigrants, but there’s not as much mainstream coverage of this topic,” Berry said. “I think this should be a staple in all of our communities. Some media outlets and educational institutions are doing a very good job, but sometimes you still feel that it’s a voice in the din.”

Challenges of covering immigration

Covering immigration, moreover, can be a delicate balance for journalists with non-immigrant and non-minority backgrounds like Porter and Berry.

Berry read out loud a mantra he has written in his office: “Be honest, be sincere, be compassionate and be clear.”

“Once you’re able to project some of those values, I think you can gain confidence in how you’re covering these stories,” he said.

Porter added that his and Berry’s approach to the project was to stay in the background and provide a platform for the interviewees to share their stories.

“We didn’t want to tell a story from a journalist perspective, we wanted to tell a story through the words of the people we interviewed,” Porter said. “We also wanted it to be in spaces where people might happen to be walking past and see it and start looking at it and become interested in the topic when they might have otherwise not paid attention.”

“Gary and I have always really enjoyed telling stories, so we tried to approach this project from that place,” Berry added. “There is such a power in storytelling. I still think it’s a really important way to enlighten and educate people. Our position is that we all need to understand each other better and treat other humans with compassion and empathy. If storytelling helps us get to that, then we’re in.”