Arizona N95 Mask Manufacturer Laid Off Hundreds, Despite Omicron Surge

Honeywell stood up N95 manufacturing in Arizona hiring hundreds of workers but has since laid the vast majority off.
Honeywell stood up N95 manufacturing in Arizona hiring hundreds of workers but has since laid the vast majority off. YouTube
Nearly two years ago a global pandemic swept across the globe and masks for protection were in short supply so manufacturers hustled to crank out masks made in America.

Now that mutations of COVID-19 are spreading the virus even among those who were vaccinated, there is little pressure to do the same.

Citing a lack of demand for masks, global manufacturer Honeywell International Inc. cut most of its Arizona production in recent months.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases bolstered by the "extraordinarily contagious" Omicron variant is spiking in Arizona, according to the state health department.

A surge in the state began two days after Christmas with more than 7,000 cases that have shown no signs of slowing down, state records show. And that's likely an underestimate since there are so many at-home COVID-19 tests. Days into the New Year, the state reported 7,212 new cases of COVID-19. More than 6,500 people died of COVID-19 in the past six months in Arizona — including dozens each day in December 2020.

"Last year, we saw a significant reduction in demand for N95s in the U.S.," said Scott Sayres spokesperson for Honeywell. "For this reason, Honeywell adjusted its N95 operations and reduced manual production at our Chandler, AZ facility to support our customers’ requirements and align our operations to market demand."

Laid-off workers were encouraged to apply for other jobs within the company, Sayres said.

The Chandler operation "remains Honeywell's largest N95 manufacturing operation" and it's still in operation, according to the company. Across the Valley including all other business divisions, Honeywell employs 8,000 workers.

Honeywell hustled in mid-2020 to retrofit manufacturing sites in Arizona and Rhode Island.

The move was lauded as a way to manufacture in America while overseas supply chains were crippled at the time. It seemed like a lasting trend. But the experiment failed only a year later.

Honeywell's Phoenix expansion opened with great fanfare and a visit from then-President Donald Trump, even though he refused to wear a mask inside the factory where masks were made.

Honeywell inked contracts to supply the Strategic National Stockpile with personal protection equipment, such as masks for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The company geared up to produce more than 20 million N95 masks each month between the Arizona and Rhode Island sites.

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey bought 6 million masks in a 12-month contract that began in April 2020. He earmarked the masks for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“I’m grateful to Honeywell for stepping up and partnering with Arizona to help get these masks to our doctors, nurses, and EMTs on the frontlines,” Ducey said in a statement at the time.

Ducey's office did not respond to comment for this story.

Elected officials promised hundreds of jobs to Arizona residents during the economic meltdown in late March 2020.

But just 13 months later, hundreds of workers at the Honeywell in Phoenix lost their jobs, 757 people to be exact. Then 470 workers in Smithfield, Rhode Island lost their jobs too.

It was when many states dropped mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccines prompted some residents to stop wearing masks altogether. Honeywell said that there was a "dramatic reduction in demand for N95s" at the time.

Since then, two variants of COVID-19 — here's looking at you Delta and Omicron — have forced many to change course and reverse previous decisions.

Despite that, Honeywell had continued its largely automated mask factory operations in Chandler after winding down its Phoenix line expansion. That was until mid-November when the company laid off 81 workers in Chandler. Honeywell had signed a long-term lease in west Chandler for a 150,000 square foot facility.

It was not immediately clear how many people the company has in Arizona working on making N95 masks now or when its lease might be up in Chandler.

Amid the whip neck pace transmission and new cases of COVID-19 into the New Year, universities such as Arizona State University now are requiring higher quality masks while indoors such as N95s instead of surgical or cloth masks.

Fake masks proliferate on the internet for sale as people scramble to find higher quality masks for their children who are now back in school and for the workplace because the economy has forced workers back to face-to-face work.

For those looking to cut through the fake mask noise, there is an N95 clearinghouse with verified products. 
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Kristen Mosbrucker is the news editor of Phoenix New Times. Mosbrucker is a journalist who hails from the Northeast but has spent much of her career over the past decade across the South. She has interviewed everyone from business executives to homeless folks. She's covered business on the Texas-Mexico border in deep South Texas for the McAllen Monitor, technology and the defense industry in San Antonio for American City Business Journals, and the petrochemical industry in Louisiana for The Advocate newspaper. Early in her career, she spearheaded hyperlocal community news coverage for an NPR member station in Philadelphia.