Keeping Medicines Flowing Despite Uncertainty and Adversity
The need for medicine doesn’t stop during lockdown. Here’s how dedicated employees kept aspirin, multivitamins and more flowing, and continue to do so, while the world fights the pandemic.
We all had an experience this year of shopping for something and finding it was out of stock. In the case of toilet paper, flour, bicycles or inflatable backyard pools, that was merely frustrating. But shortages can be much more concerning if they affect the nutritional products, like vitamins, people rely on to keep their families healthy. That happened in March and April as people all over the country tried to stock their pantries ahead of impending lockdowns.
“Everything from One A Day vitamins, to Aleve, to Bayer Aspirin, to Alka-Seltzer Plus just started flying off the shelf,” recalls Tom DiMattina, director, U.S. Supply Chain Management at Bayer. It was only natural that customers, facing uncertainty in the world and a dangerous new virus, wanted to be sure they had the vitamins and supplements they needed to help maintain their families’ wellness. But it meant a hugely increased workload for Bayer’s Myerstown, Pennsylvania, plant in the United States.
Of course, this spike in demand came as many parts of the United States were beginning to lock down. Myerstown, though, didn’t just remain open; it even accelerated work to help meet the unprecedented demand for many of Bayer’s products. And that was possible only thanks to the hard work and dedication of the employees at Myerstown — all in the service of making sure families could still find the Bayer products they depend on at the height of the pandemic.
But how do you even go about keeping a plant open during a lockdown? For Myerstown, the keys were adopting more flexible scheduling; developing new communication methods, including virtual meetings and group text messaging; and implementing physical safety measures like spreading out workstations and installing plastic shields between workers. None of that means anything, though, without the dedication of thousands of workers who’ll do whatever it takes to keep the lines running.
Here’s how Myerstown employees rose to the occasion, and what they learned from this incredible journey to keep medication flowing during a lockdown.
At the Top
Chris Sanchez, Vice President Site Manager, Bayer Myerstown Facility
“Our first reaction was caring for the safety of our employees. From day one, we went as far as we could to protect our employees.”
Though he’s been with Bayer more than two decades, Chris had only been working out of the Myerstown plant for about a month when the pandemic — and thus lockdown — hit. His first steps were to find ways to allow some employees to work from home, while ensuring those in the plant could stay safe. Myerstown implemented temperature checks, increased cleaning and sanitizing, and even more physically distant tables in the lunchroom — whatever steps it would take to ensure employees were safe and ease workers’ concerns about the coronavirus.
With so much changing week to week and even day to day, one of Chris’s other priorities was to ensure everyone was on board with any changes in the plant. “We increased communication with daily site-wide updates,” he says. “We gave employees opportunities to ask more questions.”
Above all, though, he recalls that one primary thing drove his decisions: “From day one it really was, ‘What do we do for our employees here?’”
John Caruso, Vice President of Technical Operations for Bayer HealthCare Consumer Care Division
In addition to enacting safety measures for workers in the plant, John and his team adapted to new ways of collaborating with people remotely. “There’s something to be said for that face-to-face interaction,” he says, but video calls and other virtual solutions helped keep the teams connected. “I think it forced us to be more collaborative and more connected.”
As for the workers in the plant every day, John couldn’t be more appreciative of their continued efforts through a difficult year.
“The team really felt that they were contributing to the overall societal good with the products and services that we offer here at a plant like Myerstown,” John says. “We received tremendous amounts of gratitude from that perspective, which I know Chris [Sanchez] and I will never forget.”
Moving the Goods
Tom DiMattina, Director, U.S. Supply Chain Management
With demand for Bayer’s products spiking across the country, Tom established a “COVID war room” — virtually, of course — so his team could make decisions, day by day, to keep a supply of vitamins and supplements flowing to grocery stores, pharmacies and other retailers.
“The brunt of it was focused around, ‘How do we get more supply? How do we scale our capabilities?’” he recalls.
With so many members of his team working from home during lockdown, maintaining communication between people was a challenge: They lost out on those “water cooler” chats and other in-person catch-up opportunities. But Tom says that people made efforts to establish virtual check-ins to keep on the same page, even during hectic workweeks.
“People are finding ways to connect — maybe even more so than when they were in the office,” he says. “I was amazed by how high-performing and effective the team was.”
Matt Herr, Manager of Supply Chain Planning Team
“Every day was a new adventure. A part of me was excited to get in every day and see what changes would take place.”
Matt works with five direct reports to manage the flow of goods through the production process. As soon as lockdown hit, he and his team made sure they had a plan to still produce the most important, most in-demand products, even in the face of supply delays.
“We had a clear priority list very early in the pandemic, which allowed us to react and support our customers’ needs the best we could,” he says. “Each day we could have a potential material issue, shortage of labor or equipment issue, so we were making sure we were running the products that are most critical to the customer.”
Matt also had to balance his busy workday with helping his two children adjust to online schooling. “I have a whole new respect for anyone working from home,” he says. “You’re trying to get your increased workload done, but then you also had to help your children out the best you could so they can complete assignments on time.”
Joy Hummer, Supply Chain Manager
With a 6-year-old son who’s at high risk, Joy has worked from home since the beginning of the COIVD-19 pandemic so she can help keep her family safer. But even though she’s physically distant from her team, Joy knew she was part of a greater effort to help keep up with a spike in demand during a national crisis. She manages the buying team that is responsible for all the raw materials, packaging materials and purchased bulk used in the Myerstown plant.
Her role is to help ensure there’s a supply of packaging materials for vitamins, pills and other Bayer medicines manufactured in Myerstown.
“Getting those products out the door — we understand the importance. In some instances, this is life-saving medication,” Joy says.
It wasn’t always easy. Some of the companies that normally supply Bayer with packaging materials suffered their own shortages due to lockdown measures. For example, one supplier was prioritizing making folding cartons and labels for vaccine trials and had to delay its deliveries to Myerstown. Yet through the many challenges, Joy and her colleagues came to appreciate having a distraction from other stresses during this difficult year.
“The hard work gave us something to focus on,” she says. “We were very focused on getting the product out the door, and then that doesn’t give you time to think about what’s actually going on in the world around you.”
Kamuran Tektas, Senior Supply Manager, Nutritionals and Digestive Health
“We feel responsibility towards our customers and consumers … We put consumers’ needs in front of everything while decision-making.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Kamuran recognized how important it would be for customers to be able to access nutritional products to help strengthen their immune systems. He immediately embraced the challenge of meeting that demand.
“It was important for me to step up my game to help people in the United States and around the world,” Kamuran says. “I felt immediate responsibility to make sure I did everything in my power to provide nutritional products to consumers — to provide them peace of mind.”
That meant doing whatever it took to get the job done: Kamuran recalls long days, mornings when he woke up to 100 new emails from colleagues and even instances of airfreighting products from Germany to the U.S. to meet supply needs. “We kept pushing for more supply to make sure every consumer out there got what they needed from Bayer,” he says.
The bottom line was a customer-focused attitude that aimed to keep vitamins and other nutritional products available.
On the Floor
Ryan Wagner, Technical Supervisor, Production
“All the time, there was something that was in high demand,” Ryan says, as he worked to oversee worker availability and ran day-to-day problem solving on Myerstown’s product lines. “Most of the time when you came up with a plan there was something that made it not work and you had to come up with a new plan.”
But for all that unpredictability, there was one thing that remained consistent through the pandemic: the commitment of the workers in the plant.
“I was very pleased with the amount of dedication that we’ve seen from everybody here,” Ryan says. “You know, we had operators that actually rescheduled vacations so they could be here because they knew we had a busy week.”
Jeremy Boehmer, Supervisor, Warehouse
Working extended days when necessary, and six to seven days per week, Jeremy helped the warehouse team move materials for manufacturing, packaging and eventual shipping — all against the backdrop of enormous demand. “It was super exhausting, but I was very lucky that the warehouse group rallied together and continued to work through the challenges,” he says.
With all that was going on, Jeremy knew he had to be available to his team in-person at the plant. “I was doing my best to lead by example. I was here as much as I could be,” he says. “We were just doing our best in the warehouse to accommodate, unload, receive, so items were ready to be used in production.”
Michael Putt, OTC Manufacturing
“We could rely on each other’s commitment to serving the customer … There’s a lot of pride in what we do here at Myerstown.”
Michael and his team all depended on one another, worked overtime and sometimes even worked so efficiently they’d get ahead of their current shift operation as they helped with over-the-counter production — essentially turning raw materials to finished products. Despite so much unpredictability in the outside world, Michael found that his team had an impressive dedication to their work.
With long hours and overtime becoming the norm to meet increased demand, Michael recognizes that his family also made sacrifices during the pandemic — and that they all know it was worth it.
“Our hats go off to our families. My wife has been very supportive through this, and I know there are other family members who have been supportive through this too,” he says.
Larry Kreiser, Pharmaceutical Operator, Solid Dose Nutritionals
Flexibility was the name of the game for Larry, who’s been with Bayer since 2001, and his colleagues who work with the machinery that manufactures tablets and pills. Working at a fast pace to catch up on production of in-demand items, he and his team were ready to jump in at a moment’s notice wherever somebody needed help.
“If there was a need, somebody would try to help out to be able to finish a product and get it out,” Larry recalls. “Every day I got to do something different.”
Flexibility also applied to how Bayer approached the difficulties employees faced outside of work: Whether they had to stay home to care for children because schools and day cares were closed, or due to illness, “we had a lot of flexibility,” Larry says.
Larry, along with many other employees, sacrificed time with his family to work long hours, even on Saturdays and Sundays, as the team worked overtime to produce the medicines that consumers across the country needed during the pandemic.
“I do have a good appreciation for the type of work that we do, and that it is essential. Sometimes you don’t realize that people are counting on the products that we make,” he says. “You don’t think about it a lot until something like this happens.”
Marcie Yakscoe, Quality Control, Stability Administration Supervisor
“It was a true test of flexibility … I always felt like I was flexible, but this was the ultimate test.”
Newly promoted to a supervisory role around the time the pandemic struck, Marcie oversaw a team working overtime to support the commercial and experimental Stability programs at the Myerstown site. With demand and production ramping up, her team had to ensure product was stored in the stability chambers and delivered to the laboratory for testing in a timely manner. And with so much changing every day, Marcie had to be in constant communication with her team — a task made even more challenging as her team worked a hybrid schedule, working remotely some days and in-person on other days.
“I definitely felt like I didn’t want to let the team down, so I was making sure that I was available to them, trying to lead by example,” she says. “I just tried to keep communication honest. If I knew something, I was passing it on to the team.”
Of course, the testing environment in the plant looked a little different, with workers practicing social distancing and disinfecting surfaces frequently. Plus, just like other employees, Marcie was dealing with constantly changing production schedules as the supply chain team balanced the changing demand for finished products and supply of raw materials.
While Marcie’s team had the ability to work from home a few days per week, she says she’s grateful for the dedication of her colleagues who couldn’t perform their work remotely.
“They really had no other option than to be on-site. We understand that and appreciate everybody who has been on-site full-time,” she says of Myerstown’s essential workers.
Alexa Harkins, Chemical Hygiene Officer, QA 2 – Raw Materials
“In the quality department, we always have a certain sense of pride that we’re protecting people and we’re helping people, because our job is to make sure that what’s going into the product is safe and what it’s supposed to be,” says Alexa.
Alexa’s team performs quality tests and checks for impurities on more than 200 raw ingredients before they’re used to produce vitamin tablets or other products. With production priorities changing, the quality assurance team had to become even more collaborative and flexible, working across several shifts to help accommodate the plant’s needs.
At times, those changes have meant a significantly abbreviated schedule: Alexa and her colleagues have sometimes had just two days to perform testing for which, pre-pandemic, they might have had a one-week deadline.
“We just have to make it happen,” she says. “Mainly it’s teamwork and communication, and people being really willing to put their individual priorities aside to do what is the hottest thing at that moment.”
Despite the changing and often intense schedules, Alexa said the experience underlined to her the value of her team’s role at Bayer.
Peter Kowalski, Quality Assurance, Stability Administration
“We’re going to look back on this pandemic one day and we’re going to say to ourselves, ‘What did we do? Did we hide under our beds? Or did we try to make society better in the midst of all that?’”
Here’s how Peter explains his role at Myerstown: “We all know a bottle of aspirin has an expiration date on it. We’re the reason why it has that expiration date on it.”
More specifically, Peter requests product samples off the production line, carefully oversees their storage in special chambers and then gets them to labs to test that the active ingredients will remain effective at the required levels over time. It’s a crucial step in the manufacturing process that can’t be skipped, even during times of extreme demand increases.
“It’s become more critical than ever to make sure that these products are available to the consumer,” Peter says. “We embrace that challenge every single day.”
Despite the many challenges of working during a lockdown, Peter says he remained committed to doing his part to keep the supply of Bayer’s products flowing.
“I’m proud of the work that the team I work with has been able to do,” he says.
Rallying Around a Cause
During a difficult and unpredictable year, workers at the Myerstown plant all came together in an incredible way. The supply of items like vitamins, supplements and other medicines can’t stop any time, especially during a pandemic. Yet against a background of unprecedented stress, the entire plant rallied around the cause to help ensure families could find the products they needed.
“This experience showed what outstanding employees the site has and served as a reminder to the employees that we have critical operations at the site with a medical impact,” says Chris.
“I felt like, how lucky are we that we’re working for this company that people really need our product to get through this pandemic. It’s rewarding,” agrees Matt. “We were able to help people — not only across the country but across the world — with our products.”