During the first realized onset of COVID-19 and for months after, the United States experienced a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) with a massive call for PPE all around the country. Some said the shortage could last for years to come. Articles about how to make masks and all the home seamstresses who were doing just that saturated the internet. Many who sewed professionally donated copious amounts of their time, as well as materials and supplies. Volunteerism is a beautiful thing and the fact that so many people had the desire to do something is admirable.
But deep within this flurry of people pulling out dusty sewing machines and watching videos on how to sew masks, there exists a whole group of people whose skill has been consistently devalued, even when it is most needed – garment workers.
Shannon O’Hara, along with two of her colleagues, formed The Skilled Laborers Brigade, which includes costume and wardrobe professionals from theatre, film, and television. Since March, O’Hara has worked full time in an attempt to obtain funds in the way of city contracts and/or grants in order to be able to pay something to the people making PPE.
“What I have learned,” she said, “Is that there are huge issues with the government contracts being given to 3rd party people who make profits while offering below minimum wage rates to labor.”
O’Hara, who has been a tailor her entire working life, does a lot of high-end, runway, red carpet work. “And I hire a lot of people all the time,” she said, “ I understand all the different people that there are to hire.”
Many New York City garment factories were interested in pivoting to produce PPE in response to the shortage in the city. These factories, though, cannot produce for free. They have to be able to pay their skilled labor something. Many hoped that they could receive some city contract money to do just that.
One group that did receive a $1 million contract was The Open Jar Studios, Broadway Relief Project. Open Jar Studios offers rental rehearsal spaces for performing arts groups. They partnered with Broadway costume designers to manufacture hospital gowns. Participants reportedly were compensated $300 for 20 gowns. Many of them also posted about having to watch a video on how to make the gowns.
“If you need a video of how to make this, you should not be allowed to do this,” said O’Hara, “And if we had gotten that contract, I would have turned to the people that work in the dry cleaners, the people that work in factories, you know, the people that are set up in tailoring studios.”
The thing about giving such a contract to an organization like the Open Jar Studios Broadway Relief Project is that they had to create a space to manufacture the PPE gowns and they had to “teach” many of their volunteers how to make the product they were producing. This seems incredibly inefficient in a city that already has factory space. It also reinforces the idea that sewing is a skill anybody can do by watching a YouTube video. According to the Garment District directory, there are 230 apparel manufacturing companies in New York City.
In clothing manufacturing, a tech pack is a document with instructions and diagrams for creating a specific garment. The tech pack for the hospital gowns constructed by the Open Jar Studios Broadway Relief Project, utilized French seams in the construction. French seams, which require sewing, trimming, then sewing the same seam again are in no way an efficient way to produce 100s or 1000s of a garment.
“I was sent this tech pack and asked how long I thought it would take to make a gown,” O’Hara said. Her answer was “over an hour and that’s if they’re really fast.” She offered to redo the tech pack and make it more efficient, but only if labor from the Skilled Laborers Brigade was used. She didn’t receive a response to that.
Alex Dabagh, third generation garment district and factory owner of Park Avenue Trimming, one of the largest manufacturers in New York, also attempted to secure a government contract. “He and I both were pulling our hair. And I was like, Alex, if I get it, we’ll work together. But I hope you get it,” said O’Hara. But neither of them received a contract.
In the beginning, O’Hara and the other founders thought that organization of the brigade would be enough, that the government assuredly “knows we’re here.” That’s why they formed The Skilled Laborers Brigade – so that they would be ready and available when the call came.
Calls did come, but not from where she expected. Other players who had secured the contracts contacted the Skilled Laborers Brigade in search of labor to subcontract. They wanted to make PPE but their price points were far below what was possible.
“I had one that was like $.80 a mask,” O’Hara said. According to sources within the garment factories, they need at least $3.50 to $4.00 a mask in order to break even and make a slight profit. Anything below that is really hard for them. O’Hara wasn’t being offered anything above $2.50. “And,” she added, “As somebody who’s been making garments my whole life, every time I talked to one of these people, it was clear to me they had never made anything before.”
The big questions here were why was no one talking to the people who actually make the garment? Why bring in middlemen who don’t even understand that you don’t put a French seam in a hospital gown? Nothing about that makes any sense.
Another interesting thing about the Open Jar Studios project is that one of the photos in a Vogue article about the group shows people hand cutting, which is not how things would be cut in a factory setting. “Those people are most definitely volunteers. I don’t know how this works, but how are you giving a paid contract to somebody who uses volunteer labor?” asked O’Hara.
According to O’Hara, she did receive a call from one of Governor Cuomo’s aides who told her that the Governor’s office was not, in fact, ignoring her, it was just that they weren’t giving out any contracts. One of the reasons for this was that the hospitals didn’t have budgets that allowed them to purchase goods at American made prices. The aide made the suggestion to look into grants as a way to obtain funding.
“And so we, as a group, made a decision to look into fundraising and to only do it as a volunteer organization. We had a rule that we wouldn’t give away a mask unless it was going directly on the face of somebody.” For instance, they partnered with a clothing line that makes garments for people with disabilities. That company handled all the fundraising needed to provide materials and The Skilled Laborers Brigade provided the labor.
Obtaining a grant proved to be almost as difficult as securing a government contract. In this scenario, a grant helps fill in the gap between what a hospital, home or nursing group can pay and what it costs to produce. O’Hara discovered that in order to get a grant, an organization needed to show that they had a large purchase order from a hospital or group that stated there was a specific place the PPE would go. The thing was, no one wanted to give a significant purchase order to an organization they didn’t have a history with.
One company, Fur America, did receive a grant because they did have a purchase order. The owner told O’Hara, he was able to obtain the purchase order because he was friends with the purchaser of a hospital in Brooklyn.
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O’Hara talked to a lot of people, told them she could get what they needed if she had a purchase order. She told them they wouldn’t have to pay more than they could, they could even make donation requests but still they turned her down. “It’s very weird to me,” she confessed.
She did a food drive with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Biaggi where she donated 150 masks thinking, “this is a great way to get masks on the faces of people that can’t afford them.” They were all super excited to talk to her and thanked her for what she was doing. They wanted to know how to get more masks for their next drive.
“Good that you asked,” O’Hara told them, “If you can just get me a donation request, I can apply for this large grant that will employ people.” After she asked for that, all the interest and emails stopped.
To be fair, grant money is not issued through legislation and neither Senator Biaggi’s nor Ocasio-Cortez’s offices have any direct connection to where that money goes or does not go. The Senator’s office directs people to the ESD (Empire State Development) to pursue state funding for PPE manufacturing.
When I last spoke with O’Hara she told me the Skilled Laborers Brigade would continue doing what they have been doing, mostly on a volunteer basis.
She felt frustrated by the whole process of attempting to secure funding for something as essential as PPE.
“There is a direct connection between our (as a society) choosing to only make products in Southeast Asian and Central Asian countries where we can heavily exploit workers, but I don’t really know how to tell that story,” O’Hara said. Exploitation, of course, doesn’t just happen in countries other than the U.S. The story O’Hara means is the one where it’s okay to pay $.02 or $.03 cents for a mask made by somebody in Thailand or Bangladesh.
The PPE shortage was one of the biggest failures of our government, especially since PPE, like masks and gowns and hats, are simple products. “I would have liked to have seen it handled by [the government] coming out with one or two tech packs and a source for medical grade fabric. And when you’re done send it to a specific place for quality control. Why were we all wildly making masks that may or may not have worked?”
O’Hara’s plan, if they had received grants and/or contracts, was to utilize the existing garment factory infrastructure in New York City and pay skilled NYC garment workers a wage to make PPE.
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Thank you SO much to all the volunteers who came out yesterday to help us box, and cut string for masks. These boxes will go to tailors and sewers in their homes to sew 5,000 children’s and adult masks for @runwayofdreams ! Thank you to @gumstudios for hosting the operation at to @feel.usa for taking pictures! TEAM WORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK 👏🏼🔥
Even now, months after the original crisis, the supply chain for PPE is floundering. According to the Harvard Business Review, the Supply Chain Task Force, formed by the federal government to try to solve some of the problems, determined that if the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) agency was more robust some of the supply chain issues could be resolved. The reasons for the inefficacy of the SNS include the fact that the agency wasn’t a priority, didn’t have access to needed information, and simply lacked experts in supply chain manufacturing.
Onshoring the manufacturing of PPE could help solve some of the supply chain issues. The U.S. MADE Act of 2020, introduced in July, proposes to limit the production of certain personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) to only “domestically produced” sources. It also suggests a tax credit to promote PPE manufacturing in the U.S. The HEROES act also includes supply chain provisions. Both of these could help prevent future PPE supply chain disruptions.
Note: I contacted the city of New York, Governor Cuomo’s office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and offices and received no response. I did speak with an aid at Senator Biaggi’s office who directed me to the ESD.