Fernandina's mills running strong during crisis

  • The RYAM and WestRock mills in Fernandina Beach. The mills have been in the city for almost a century and have helped the local economy weather more than one crisis.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    The RYAM and WestRock mills in Fernandina Beach. The mills have been in the city for almost a century and have helped the local economy weather more than one crisis. Julia Roberts/News-Leader

While the tourism and hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus, the two pulp mills in Fernandina Beach – Rayonier Advanced Materials and WestRock – are up and running, with no layoffs or employee furloughs.

Ryan Houck, spokesperson for RYAM, said the Fernandina Plant is deemed an essential business by the Department of Homeland Security due to the role it plays in the food, pharmaceutical, and industrial products supply chain.

“Many of our products are found in consumer staples from sponges and shampoos to toothpaste and diapers,” Houck explained. “They’re also used in sanitizing wipes, medicines, and food.”

In order to keep its team safe during the pandemic, RYAM made changes including suspending non-critical business travel, holding virtual meetings, implementing social distancing, supporting remote work when possible, and enhancing sanitation protocols.

For manufacturing facilities where most employees cannot work remotely, RYAM reduced employee density and established engineering and administrative controls to help ensure health and safety are protected.

“We have added physical barriers and foot traffic patterns to support social distancing in manufacturing facilities where remote work is not possible,” Houck said. “We’ve also begun manufacturing disinfectants in-house to support enhanced cleaning of workstations and communal areas and placed restrictions on non-essential visitors and contractors.”

“We have and will continue to emphasize the importance of practicing safe behaviors, including social distancing,” WestRock spokesperson John Pensec said. “Employees are encouraged to wear facemasks, and we provide masks for employees who choose to wear them.

“We also limit access to the facility to only those individuals who are critical to our operations, and we conduct health screenings, including temperature checks.”

With schools closed, RYAM also made work arrangements for employees with school-aged children. Houck said the needs of those employees vary and are being addressed on an individual basis. The company also offers an Employee Assistance Program and other benefits to address concerns and circumstances if employees need extra help.

“Our Employee Assistance Program provides confidential support to employees who may be struggling with things like bereavement, depression, workplace changes or personal finance matters, in addition to promoting general health and wellbeing,” Houck said. “Many of the program's services can be accessed online.”

Pensec said WestRock provided surplus personal protective equipment to Baptist Medical Center Nassau and worked in conjunction with a local distillery that changed its product line from spirits to hand sanitizer, donating hundreds of bottles from their storeroom stock for the sanitizer.

Both RYAM and WestRock have contributed to local nonprofits, which have seen a huge increase in requests for help during the pandemic.

“In light of COVID-19, WestRock has accelerated our donation schedule and increased our giving amount to several local nonprofits serving the needs of the city of Fernandina’s and Nassau County’s children and older citizens to help deliver assistance as quickly as possible to some of the most vulnerable members of our community,” Pensec said.

WestRock also donated 7,000 boxes to the Journey Church Food Bank to help distribute needed food and supplies.

The RYAM Foundation has contributed a total of $45,000 to five local nonprofit organizations – Barnabas Center, Nassau County Council on Aging, Salvation Army Hope House, Micah’s Place, and Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare – all addressing community needs.

“The health and wellbeing of our employees, customers, contractors, suppliers and members of the communities where we operate are our highest priorities,” a statement from RYAM said. “As COVID-19’s impacts have spread worldwide, RYAM has committed to maintaining those priorities while operating our businesses across the globe to serve our customers.”

“Our operations in Fernandina Beach are an important part of WestRock’s network of mills and converting facilities that are helping keep critical supply chains operating for paper and packaging for food, beverages and medicine,” Pensec said. “We are enormously proud of how our more than 50,000 team members around the world, including the approximately 600 in Fernandina Beach, are doing everything they do to safely produce the products that need to get on store shelves.”