A failure to communicate in North Adams

Mayor, large employer in standoff over reopening

CRANE STATIONERY CO. in North Adams needs to do a better job of communicating.

On April 29, the company’s chief operations officer, Dean Daigle, sent an email to employees that most news outlets in the area regarded as a shutdown notice. “Crane Stationery to close North Adams plant,” read the headline in the Berkshire Eagle.

Daigle wrote that the Crane brand, which traces its origins to a paper-making plant launched by Zenas Crane in 1801, was reeling from the bankruptcy of Papyrus, its largest customer, as well as nationwide COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings (wedding invitations account for 40 percent of the company’s business) and Gov. Charlie Baker’s order shutting down non-essential businesses.

“Crane is a 220-year-old iconic brand. However, in the face of these unforeseeable circumstances, we have had to make the very difficult decision to wind down operations at Crane,” Daigle wrote.”

The next day, however, the company said it was not closing. Officials said the business had obtained a $2 million loan from the federal Payment Protection Program and would keep paying its employees until June 19. At that point, however, the company said it would have to adjust to the new market realities and lay off an estimated 85 percent of its 229 employees.

Tom O’Connor, the chairman and CEO of Mohawk Paper, which purchased Crane Stationery in 2015, said the confusion about the company’s shutdown was precipitated by the use of the words “wind down” in Daigle’s email. He said the company’s legal advisers had recommended using those words to convey to employees that substantial layoffs were coming.

Crane subsequently announced that it planned to restart operations on Monday, May 4, after receiving an opinion from the Baker administration that at least a portion of its business was essential. Basically, Crane argued that it supplied stationery to medical, energy, and legal firms that are considered essential so, therefore, Crane is essential as well. For good measure, Crane even mentioned that it does work for Vice President Mike Pence’s wife.

The Baker administration apparently went along with that argument, but advised Crane to focus only on its work for essential businesses. The emails back and forth between the company and Len Evers of the Department of Labor Standards apparently weren’t very specific about how that would be accomplished. “In its communications with employees, Crane appears to take Evers’ finding as a blanket go-ahead,” the Berkshire Eagle reported.

Up until that point, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard had been hoping Crane would just survive. But as the company prepared to reopen, he said he began hearing from employees concerned about returning to work. He sent notice to Crane officials informing them the business would not be allowed to reopen until health and building inspectors could verify that workers would be safe and social distancing practiced. He also wanted documentation that only work for essential businesses was being done.

Crane officials provided the mayor with their safety plans, but indicated it would be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between essential and non-essential work. “I want to give them credit, they’ve done a very good job of putting a [safety] plan in place,” Bernard told Northadams.com. “What they have refused to do is indicate how they will focus on essential work.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The company went ahead and opened on Friday, prompting warnings from town officials that the business was failing to comply with the mayor’s directive. The company opened again on Monday, and this time the town issued a $1,000 fine and threatened to revoke any licenses or permits allowing Crane to operate.

The standoff continued into Tuesday with the mayor and his staff threatening to shut down one of the town’s largest employers.