Briggs & Stratton Closed Lines Friday After Another Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19
Mike Jackson, center, with his brothers Tony, at left, and Ed. Mike died of coronavirus on May 28 after collapsing at work at Briggs & Stratton in Wauwatosa. His family and coworkers say he felt pressured into working sick. (Photo courtesy of Ed Jackson)

Workers returned to work Tuesday following the July 4th holiday weekend. 

Briggs & Stratton temporarily shut down five production lines at the north end of its Wauwatosa factory and headquarters on Friday after a worker tested positive for coronavirus, but employees were expected to return to work Tuesday morning, according to a union representative and a Briggs employee.

The shutdown happened just one day after about 50 people picketed outside the company’s headquarters in protest of the death of Mike Jackson, a former Briggs employee who collapsed at work in May and then died of coronavirus. Other employees have told UpNorthNews that little has changed in regards to coronavirus safety at the company, even after Jackson’s death.

Workers were sent home around 7:30 a.m. Friday morning after managers learned of a positive case in an assembly line worker, according to Chance Zombor, a grievance representative for United Steelworkers Local 2-232, which represents Briggs employees, and Jazmine Word, a Briggs employee for over two years. Two other Briggs employees confirmed the lines were closed Friday due to an employee testing positive for the virus.

Zombor, who is also a member of Briggs’ safety committee, told UpNorthNews via text that another employee in the area, a foreman who is regularly in contact with many different employees, learned on Sunday that he tested positive for the virus. 

Employees had off work on Monday due to the Fourth of July holiday weekend, but were expected to return Tuesday morning, Zombor and Word told UpNorthNews.

“They told everybody to go home and they’ll see us on Tuesday,” said Word, who said she works first shift on the same line as the worker who tested positive. “I still feel like, you know, we shouldn’t still be there, because it’s a couple coworkers that have been in contact with him.” 

Three current employees have told UpNorthNews that the protections Briggs & Stratton have put into place since Jackson’s death — including providing some hand sanitizer, taping the floors to encourage social distancing, taking temperatures when employees clock in, and installing some plastic barriers — are not enough.

Word said she does not usually have direct contact with the employee who tested positive, but she does have direct contact with people who work directly with him.

“I still feel concerned a little bit,” she said. “I still feel I was exposed.”

Rick Carpenter, vice president of corporate marketing and communications for Briggs, did not answer questions about the cases or closure from UpNorthNews.

“We are following our protocol and working with the local Health Department,” Carpenter said in an email. He did not respond when asked to elaborate on the company’s protocol.

In previous comments, Carpenter said Briggs was “doing quite a bit to keep our employees safe in trying to combat the virus,” adding that the company is “in concert with” guidance from OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Wauwatosa Health Department. Carpenter also said the company has a “very clear” pandemic safety handbook, but Zombor insisted that “nobody knows what that is.”

Wauwatosa Public Health Manager Laura Stephens said her department would not release any information about or confirm the reported cases or line closure.

Employees were given four hours’ pay for Friday, according to a text from another union steward that Zombor shared with UpNorthNews.

Word said she would like to see the lines shut down longer than a single work day. Employees at Briggs who have coronavirus or wish to voluntarily quarantine are eligible for short-term disability payments, but Word said it’s not feasible for her to go on quarantine because it pays just $375 per week. 

“Honestly, it’s something that I really can’t afford to do,” Word said. She said she normally makes about $1,100 per paycheck, or $550 per week, after taxes.

Jackson’s family previously said he felt pressured into working sick. The father of eight did not want to call in to work or take short-term disability because he feared a loss of income and thought he would be penalized for taking time off, his family said.

Throughout the pandemic, essential workers at Briggs have been given no paid sick leave and no hazard pay, according to Zombor, two other Briggs employees, and fliers handed out at last week’s demonstration.

There is no mandatory mask-wearing policy, and employees were only given a few thin fabric masks in late April, Zombor and another employee told UpNorthNews. 

The company has not answered questions from UpNorthNews about whether it will offer sick leave and hazard pay, or implement a mandatory mask policy.

When the protesters demonstrated outside Briggs’ headquarters, they passed out fliers with demands including: a mandatory mask policy, new masks for each employee every day, paid sick leave, and hazard pay.

Carpenter did not respond to a question asking whether the company would meet any of those demands. Zombor, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said the company did not offer him any response.

Briggs & Stratton, which faces possible bankruptcy after it skipped an interest payment and instead gave a total of $2.6 million in “retention awards” to top executives, also announced late last month that it will ship 200 jobs out of the Wauwatosa plant to a facility in Sherill, New York. 

Word said she is one of the employees who will lose their jobs at the end of August. While she is worried about the unemployment woes facing many Wisconsinites amidst the pandemic, she said she won’t mind not working for Briggs anymore.

“It was a relief to me,” Word said. “I don’t really want to have to say it, but I was getting close to my end, and I’m kind of glad that it did happen how it happened.”