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What it’s like to manufacture toilet paper during a pandemic

A worker at a Charmin factory explains how his job has been impacted by increased demand for toilet paper.

A sign on a shelf of toilet paper in a store reads, “Limit 1 for customer.”
A grocery store in Washington, DC, limited customers to one package of toilet paper per person on March 19.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Toilet paper became a coveted item sometime in mid-March, when US cities and states saw an increase in coronavirus cases that prompted many Americans to stock up on household goods. Soon enough, grocery stores found themselves struggling to meet demand; some placed purchase limits on certain items, toilet paper chief among them, as sparsely stocked shelves became the new normal.

While many people attributed the toilet paper scarcity to panic buying, the shortage likely stemmed from supply chain disruptions, as I previously reported for The Goods. More people are staying home and therefore using more of their own TP stash.

As a result of this shift in habits, suppliers now have to produce more consumer toilet paper (the likes of Quilted Northern, Charmin, or Cottonelle that you use at home), rather than the bulky commercial rolls of thin, scratchy paper often found in public restrooms. Suppliers such as Kimberly-Clark, Georgia-Pacific, and Procter & Gamble have all ramped up production since March to meet the increased demand.

In this crisis, employees like John Patteson, a Charmin department leader who works at a P&G plant in Albany, Georgia, are considered essential — and in most instances, they’re busier than before. Since March, Patteson has gone from working five days a week to seven and is responsible for an entire paper machine and more than 100 people who directly report to him.

In recent weeks, the toilet paper shortage is starting to be corrected. According to data Reuters reported from NCSolutions, about 73 percent of US stores were out of toilet paper on April 12; the number went down to 48 percent by April 19. I spoke to Patteson about how his work has changed as a result of Covid-19, the biggest challenges of his job, and how the toilet paper industry is susceptible to surges in demand. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Can you briefly describe what you do as a paper-making leader?

As a department leader, I take direct responsibility for the paper machine and all the folks who work on it. All the people operating around the machine report to me, so each morning we meet as a team and go through our plan for the day: what will production look like, any output problems, what we need to work on to ensure that we’re able to produce the amount of paper that’s needed. I also communicate with those overseeing other paper machines.

When you think about a paper machine, it’s about four stories tall and about the length of a football field (or 100 yards) in size. We take the pulp, which is the product that comes in, and we process and dry it to turn it into rolls of paper.

How has your daily work changed?

On Mondays before each team comes in, I put together all the masks and make a bag of personal protective equipment (PPE). I deliver them to the control room or work area so when workers come in, they have all the PPE that they’ll need to ensure that they’re safe.

Every day, we implement the Covid-19 response protocols set out by P&G. At the plant, we look at the status of Covid-19 for the local area and the state to ensure we have the right information to put together [employee] plans for the next day and week. We are going out and ensuring we have everything in place so we can protect the health and safety of our employees as we continue to respond to Covid.

One thing that’s really been a change is the Southern hospitality. Not being able to greet people at the gate or being close on the floor, for example, it’s been very much a cultural change for us here in the plant because it’s a lot of relationships, and we’re used to working side by side. Not having that has really been a big difference for us workers. [A P&G spokesperson said that workers are given staggered shift times throughout the day to create social distancing.]

We have to meet and discuss the plans together, but in many instances we’ve had to figure out how to keep our distance. How do you go about and communicate daily? How do we host our team meetings now? We would’ve had our team meetings all in one room together around the table, and that’s now not possible. We have to call in virtually now.

An image of John Patteson standing atop a paper machine.
John Patteson stands atop a paper machine at the P&G plant in Albany, Georgia.
Courtesy of Procter & Gamble

When did you realize that your work would be impacted by the coronavirus?

In January, we started to see projections for demand come in a little bit higher. We quickly shifted to use some idle equipment that we had to enable us to improve the increase in throughput. We didn’t know exactly why in January, but over time, more news of Covid-19 made it clear.

At our plant [in Georgia], we brought up a piece of idle equipment that allowed us to increase our production rate. Overall, we’ve produced about 20 percent more. We had to utilize resources from other sites in Pennsylvania and Missouri, and they came down to assist us [in setting] it up. Normally, it takes a couple months for equipment to be brought up, but we were able to consolidate those resources in a couple weeks. So our increase in production started in January, but the biggest increase began in March.

We’re also in the process of training new hires, and we’re currently using headsets that enable us to communicate without being right next to them.

What challenges do you face in your job that the average person isn’t aware of?

We work with large pieces of equipment, and a big portion of our current challenge is how do we continue to produce while keeping our employees healthy and safe throughout the process.

With Covid, all of the distress and uncertainty, we haven’t been able to see what we’re working against. With other crises, we’ve been able to clearly see the barriers in production. The unknown has been the biggest challenge, especially in placing measures to protect our employees when you can’t necessarily see the threat.

Has there been an event, much like Covid-19, that was challenging and reaffirmed your belief that your job is important?

Our Albany plant got hit by a tornado in 2017, and it took out our distribution warehouse. We had to figure out how to utilize our entire network to continue to produce. The tornado was very different in the sense that we could see what we were working against: Our employees needed electricity at home, or they needed trees removed from their yard. We were able to get generators to help provide electricity and removed trees to clear their driveways. The tornado also created a small surge; any natural disaster creates surges across our system, but we’ve learned over the years how to plan ahead and meet production needs.

Is there anything else that you want customers or friends or family who may be worried about a TP shortage to know?

I just like to tell folks that Charmin is on the way. We’re working as fast as we can to meet demand.