Answering the call one more time
Apr 11, 2020

Bruce Penning retired from 3M in 2016 and set out on a Harley Davidson motorcycle to tour the United States.

After a 38-year career with the company – his final role was managing the Personal Safety Division’s (PSD) telephone Helpline – he was ready to head on down the road. He’d helped PSD through multiple “X factor” events, as the division refers to them, that had people calling about personal protective equipment like N95 respirators – such as the Mt. St. Helen’s volcanic eruption, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and the separate outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and MERS.

“When I left, I left it on the table: If you ever need any help for an X factor, I’m willing to come back,” he said.

Over the next 3 and a half years, Bruce covered 25 states on his Harley.

Bruce near Beartooth Pass, Montana.

Then this January, he heard about a novel coronavirus sickening people in China.

“I called the person who used to be my 3M manager and said there is something coming out of China, I think it could be big. If you need help, let me know,” he said.

A month later, Bruce was fielding calls from his Minnesota home for the Helpline, going from a retiree to a contingent worker working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., fielding calls non-stop.

Bruce and another 3M retiree have rejoined PSD’s telephone Helpline, sharing their knowledge with the people who need it most.Their supervisor appreciates what they bring to the table.

“Due to the retirees’ previous PSD experience and product knowledge, we’ve been able to set up our retirees to take incoming calls within 2 days. Normal onboarding time for a new Helpline employee or contract worker is 4 to 6 weeks,” said Paul Puncochar, PSD Helpline supervisor.

And being able to get more people on the Helpline sooner has been a critical benefit the past few weeks.

“Our call volumes have approximately tripled from normal,” Paul said. “We’ve been consistently handling well over 1,000 calls per day for the past four weeks.”

Without adding additional people, call wait times would have doubled and resulted in multiple dropped calls.

Many calls are emotionally fraught, with questions about N95 respirators: how do they work, is this one expired, where can I find them?

“We let them know that we are sending just about all of our respirators for use by people on the front lines,” Bruce said. “You have to have empathy. This is a very real, personal issue. They’re looking for something, they need some help.”

Don Garvey, a recent 3M retiree who came back as a contingent worker for the Helpline, started as a product specialist in 2006 for powered air and emergency response equipment. For a while, he worked the technical helpline one day a week. But no past 3M experience compares to the current moment, he said, with its immediate and global impact.

“This is so far above and beyond,” he said from his Minnesota home.

A recent call stuck with him. An elderly caller was distraught and exasperated because they’d been given a much- appreciated reusable respirator but didn’t know how to attach the filter.

Don recalled his line of questioning:

Do you see a little white pad?

Does it say 5P71 on it?

Do you have the filter retainer cap?

It’s a translucent ring.

Can you find it?

Snap it on. It holds the filter in place.

“You hear the snap, it’s on! We’re both almost crying now, they’re so happy the respirator is assembled, and somebody helped [them] put it together,” he said.

“To have somebody answer the phone and talk to you, to say, ‘Here’s how it is, here’s how it works, here’s what you’ve got to do,’ I think that’s so important right now.”

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