Okay, class. Today we have a pop quiz–but don’t panic! There’s only one question, and the answer is multiple-choice, so you have at least a 25% chance of getting it right:
What do you get when an industry pressures an inadequately staffed and poorly-trained workforce into increasing output by almost 50%?
a) A lot of shoddy product.
b) A lot of sick and injured workers.
c) Record industry profits.
d) All of the above.
If you answered d), congratulations! You’ve just described Elkhart, Indiana, which is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades, Elkhart has been ravaged by the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The result, as documented October 19 by the Indianapolis Star in a damning 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series, is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs, even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins. Covid drove an unexpected surge in demand for RVs, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But Covid also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers, even as they were being pushed to increase production by almost 50%.
Two results were inevitable. One was a volley of Covid-19 complaints to the underfunded, undermanned and industry-friendly Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which responded not with inspections but with requests to employers to submit documents “proving” they were following Covid-19 safety protocols. Indeed, IOSHA’s response was so perfunctory that it physically inspected only 44 of more than 6,000 Covid-related complaints state-wide–the worst inspection rate in the U.S.–including just two in Elkhart County, neither involving major RV makers. The county eventually recorded nearly 700 Covid deaths.
But as the Star also found, problems in the RV plants had been brewing long before the epidemic, which the virus only exacerbated. “Workers told Indy Star about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories,” the Star reported. “Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin or Adderall–even methamphetamine–to keep up with the pace.”
The other predictable result was that as the work pace picked up–one Winnebago employee said he went from working on 16 RVs a day to 36 during the pandemic–the products coming off the line were increasingly substandard. Ron Burdge, an Ohio attorney who has been suing RV manufacturers for years over defective products, told the Star that RV quality had been declining for at least 15 years prior to the pandemic, but took a nosedive once it hit. Record-setting recall numbers bear him out. Companies owned by Thor Industries recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year alone, while Forest River–a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway–recalled nearly 200,000 and Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000.
“All are among the highest for each company in the last five years,” the Star reported. “Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure and poorly installed awnings.” One example it offered of the life-threatening dangers unwitting RV buyers have been accepting: an Oregon family that purchased a 40-foot Heartland Road Warrior for more than $100,000, only to have it burst into flame in Montana on the return trip home, totaling it and the tow vehicle. The cause appears to have been faulty wiring in the fifth-wheel’s electrical panel, yet as the Star observed, RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work.
Industry response to the Star’s findings, grim as they are, thus far consists either of stonewalling or of denying there is a problem in the first place. Thor Industries responded to the newspaper’s requests for comment by claiming the quality of its units had actually improved, even as it was making more of them, as evidenced by a lower level of warranty claims–without acknowledging not just this year’s 156,000 recalls, but the 371,384 recalls it had in 2021. Forest River, meanwhile, didn’t respond at all to the Star’s requests for comment, while Winnebago declined to answer the newspaper’s questions about quality issues.
The industry overall seems to be hoping the Star’s blockbuster series will sink out of sight. RV PRO, an online site “for the RV professional,” ran a terse and nonspecific news item about the series on the day it was published, much of it devoted to quoting an equally nonspecific response from the RV Industry Association, the trade association for RV manufacturers. Lamenting that it had been answering the Star’s questions for nearly a year, “emphasizing the high priority the RV industry places on workplace safety and the safety of our products,” the RVIA insisted that “protecting the safety of these valued employees is of paramount importance to our industry.”
RVIA’s own website, however, has none of that. Indeed, at this writing, the RVIA website makess no mention at all of the IndyStar story and its withering critique.
Putting an ironic frosting on the cake, so to speak, it must be noted that Winnebago Industries held a previously scheduled earnings call at 10 a.m. October 19, even as the Star’s report was being published online. Business was gang-busters, financial investors and analysts were told: fourth-quarter net revenues were up 14%, year over year, for a gross profit of $210.4 million. Net revenues for the year were $5 billion, for a record gross margin of 18.7%.
No questions were asked–and no information was given–about workforce or production issues. Chief financial officer Bryan Hughes, however, did offer the observation that “the company and our culture are successful because all our employees care deeply about our end customers, strategic business partners and each other.”
[The full Indianapolis Star series can be accessed here, but readers should note that virtually all of it is behind a paywall–non-subscribers will instead be shown a graphic novel that capsulizes some of the reporting, followed by an invitation to subscribe. The good news is that an introductory subscription can be had for just $1, with subsequent cancellation always an option.]