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updated: 5/1/2020 8:14 AM

Furniture maker turns to masks, shields to keep business going

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  • Employees at Key Interiors' Schaumburg facility work on making face masks and shields for health care workers. The Lombard-based company was facing furloughs when Illinois issued its stay-at-home order in March, but has converted to making masks and shields and has since hired more people to keep up with demand.

    Employees at Key Interiors' Schaumburg facility work on making face masks and shields for health care workers. The Lombard-based company was facing furloughs when Illinois issued its stay-at-home order in March, but has converted to making masks and shields and has since hired more people to keep up with demand.
    Courtesy Key Interiors

 
By John T. Slania
Daily Herald Correspondent

Key Interiors was preparing to furlough 15 manufacturing and warehouse workers when Illinois first issued a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead, it quickly converted its Schaumburg facility from manufacturing furniture to producing protective masks and face shields for health care workers and first responders.

Rather than having to let workers go, Key Interiors received so many orders, it started hiring, and now has 80 employees making masks and face shields.

"We quickly found there was a big demand because there is a severe shortage of these products," said Tom Johnstone, sales manager and a co-owner of the Lombard-based interior design and furnishings company.

Johnstone said his company is not only supplying front-line workers with badly needed personal protective equipment, he is hiring people when many other companies are laying off or furloughing employees.

"It feels good knowing we're helping first responders and health care workers, and keeping people employed at the same time," Johnstone said.

When Illinois announced that nonessential businesses would be shuttered beginning March 21, Key Interior executives reached out to contacts in the medical supply industry and began converting the manufacturing facility to the production of masks and shields, Johnstone said.

It was challenging pivoting from making furniture to producing hospital-approved protective equipment, but Key Interiors was able to flip its manufacturing process in less than 10 days, Johnstone said.

By early April, Key Interiors was producing masks and shields for an East Coast medical supply company, and soon secured several other contracts. The company went from producing 47,000 masks a week to close to 250,000 every seven days, Johnstone said.

Key Interiors is paying workers $11-$13 an hour, and is running two shifts Monday-Friday, and another shift on Saturday, Johnstone said.

To keep workers safe, the company supplies them with masks and enforces social-distancing rules, Johnstone said. It also purchased a $10,000 disinfectant spray system, which it uses before the start of each shift, he said.

"We've had very good luck with the people we've hired," Johnstone said. "They have a good work ethic, and they're eager to work extra hours during this economic downturn."