An employee of South Elgin, Ill.-based Hoffer Plastics Corp. left work early with a toothache one day in the spring and sadly never returned.
She apparently got infected with COVID-19 going to one of her doctor appointments, and she ended up hospitalized in an intensive care unit for treatment. The woman seemed to be getting better and was sent to rehabilitation, but then something else went wrong.
"It's unclear to us, but the next day she was gone," said Alex Hoffer, chief revenue officer for the injection molder of plastic parts for packaging, such as baby food pouch closures, as well as parts for the automotive, appliances and consumer industrial markets.
The effects of the pandemic have hit hard at the family-owned business, which was founded in 1953 and just handed over to the third generation of owners on Jan. 1.
The company employs about 350 people who work three shifts at a 360,000-square-foot plant in a Chicago suburb.
The business was doing well and preparing to launch a new product at Interpak in Düsseldorf, Germany, in May. With an estimated $90 million in sales, Hoffer ranks 83rd among North American injection molders, according to Plastics News' ranking.
Then, the pandemic struck. One employee died. Another Hoffer worker lost a loved one to the disease. The mother-in-law of an employee of 10 years contracted COVID-19. Then he did, too, about a week later, and so did his wife and son.
The Hoffer employee was placed on an ECMO machine for heart and lung life support while his wife and son received similar treatment in the same intensive care unit. A GoFundMe campaign raised $18,000 for their medical bills. The worker was in various hospitals for 72 days, but all four family members survived.
In the meantime, other Hoffer employees were taking time off to care for sick loved ones or they were simply afraid to go to work. Staffing became a challenge at the company, which had been deemed an essential business because of its customers.
In the last five months, the owners and their teams have mourned deaths, filled 40 openings, hired a chaplain, implemented pay cuts, restored pay and tried to follow two principles: Keep people employed and keep people healthy.
"To lead a business through that, I'm not completely whole yet," Hoffer said in a Zoom conference. "…This is really difficult."
Hoffer spoke to plastics industry executives during MAPP's virtual Benchmarking and Best Practices Conference. He could address many facets of the pandemic from experience. On July 4, he woke up with body aches.
"I had been coaching my son's baseball team," Hoffer said. "That's the one area where I let my guard down a little bit. It wouldn't be 2020 if I didn't have to pay for it, now would it?"
Hoffer got infected. After all he and the company have been through, he is urging industry leaders to take stock of their lives and the lives of those around them.
"Think about how you can exhibit more humanity in your place of employment. What does this experience make possible for you as a leader?" he asked. "I would contend it makes it possible for your leadership to emerge, for people on your team to be valued, for you to become the kind of person that is worth following."