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Radiant Steel uses PPP to keep employees paid

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Machine operators Eric Hudson, front, Josh Eisley and others work at machines bending steel plates at Radiant Steel in the city Thursday.

Kathy Fenstamaker has spent many a sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make her and her husband Rick’s company run during the COVID-19 pandemic. She never could have imagined a situation like the one Radiant Steel is facing since it returned to production after a two-month shutdown.

The production shop located at 205 Locust Road is back to work. But nothing is the same. The volume of production isn’t the same as it was. Production usually picks up in the summer, but it just hasn’t done so in the way the Fenstamakers had hoped.

It’s hard to be optimistic in the face of so many unknowns, but Fenstamaker said but she is.

“There is optimism, but the world is just crazy right now and it’s so hard to predict anything,” Kathy said. “One day you feel good about things, the next day you read the paper and you say ‘what happened?’ It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow with the world like it is today.”

The whole ordeal has been a mess for Kathy and Rick. Radiant Steel has been a longtime family-owned business and the family has recently had to endure some tough times before the novel coronavirus ever showed up.

And in the blink of an eye everything had to be shut down in March. Radiant Steel was not classified as a life-sustaining business according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders. The Fenstamakers appealed that decision with letters from 3M and another company for which it supplies products. But despite 3M saying in its letter Radiant Steel made a necessary component for the ventilators, the appeal was denied.

“We didn’t have any answers,” Fenstamaker said. “We were in shock.”

Radiant Steel continued to pay its employees throughout the mandatory government shutdown. It received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was instituted by the CARES Act. It afforded Radiant Steel the opportunity to make sure its eight employees never missed a paycheck during the shutdown.

But even obtaining that loan has come with its own challenges; Finding the answers of what needs to be paid back; the money taking longer than expected to come through. But through it all, Rick maintained an open dialogue with all the company’s employees to keep them updated on what was going on.

“All of our employees are absolutely wonderful,” Fenstamaker said. “When it was time to come back, they were back in the shop.”

The return to production has come with some changes for the Fenstamakers. They’ve had to outfit their workers with masks. They’ve provided hand sanitizer in the shop for employees to use. They have to make sure the large machines used inside the shop are disinfected often. It’s a tough task, but one the employees have taken on emphatically.

Workers are fortunate the shop’s layout provides for proper social distancing. They enter the shop through only one door and exit through a separate door. Employees are naturally distanced from one another in the shop, and if they don’t want to see one another throughout the course of the day, they don’t have to.

They started slowly since Lycoming County was moved to the yellow phase of Wolf’s re-opening plan in mid-May. Workers started with eight-hour days as orders came in. They moved to nine-hour days soon after and are now back to working their regular 10-hour shifts four days per week.

But business still isn’t where it was. And Fenstamaker can’t even ballpark when it will return to something resembling normal. Much of Radiant Steel’s work comes from companies located within Pennsylvania. And those businesses are dealing with the same restrictions the Fenstamakers are.

“There are just so many variances,” Kathy Fenstamaker said. “This is all very disheartening. We’re struggling. We’re a small company. But I guess we’re not worse off than anybody else in the world. Once everybody is up and running again, we hope it’ll all be OK.”

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