An unusual email greeted employees at a Wisconsin shipping-supply company on Friday. It urged them to support a petition for the recall of the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, saying he was violating their constitutional right to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most significant, the message came from their boss, billionaire Liz Uihlein, one of the Republican Party’s biggest donors and an economic adviser to President Donald Trump.
The request bothered some staffers, in part because they consider Uihlein insufficiently supportive of work-from-home policies — something her company disputes, calling its employees’ health and safety “our top priority.”
As protests grip Wisconsin and other states with Democratic governors, the debate is dividing neighbors, politicians and business executives. Big company CEOs — Democrats and Republicans alike — have generally urged caution about reopening because of the health risk, yet some of the GOP’s biggest donors have been pushing hardest on the side of lifting restrictions.
Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, and the advocacy groups he supports have alsoquestioned blanket shutdowns, saying businesses should have the flexibility to adapt safely to the virus.
But few have objected more strongly than Liz Uihlein, chief executive officer of closely held Uline — a simplification of her family’s name, which is pronounced You-Line.
“I want to see America get back to work,” Uihlein said in a statement, explaining her opposition to the governor’s decision to shut down the state for five more weeks. “We love our customers, and we love our employees. We think about our employees and their families. We need a strong economy and a healthy business to support them.”
On the day when Trump declared a national emergency after weeks of downplaying the risk, she questioned the urgency.
“The Media is Overblowing COVID-19,” she said in a March 13email to dozens of lawmakers in Illinois, where the company has major operations. “At what point do we go back to our normal lives? This has been a huge disruption.”
Over the past decade, Liz Uihlein and her husband, Richard, Uline’s chairman, have given about $95 million to Republican candidates and causes, more than anyone else except casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, according to theCenter for Responsive Politics.
In 2016, Trump named Liz Uihlein to an advisory council designed to “get the American economy back on track.” In October, Vice President Mike Pence visited Uline’s warehouse in Wisconsin, one of the stops he made at businesses during a tour promoting the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
On March 17, Liz Uihlein was among the business executives listed as participants in a call with Trump about the nation’s virus response. She missed the meeting, the company said; the White House declined to discuss the Uihleins.
In 1980, the couple founded their company, which is based in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Richardseeded Uline with a loan from his father, who co-founded an office-supply company and was a descendant of a founder of Schlitz Brewing Co.
Today, Uline has more than $5 billion in annual sales and about 6,500 employees.The Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimates that the family has a net worth of roughly $4 billion.
The Uihleins, who are in their 70s, oppose unions and support small government. Uline’s website features links to Liz Uihlein’s letters to customers from the company’s 800-plus page catalog, which offers more than 35,000 products. Over the years, she has written about what she considersburdensome regulation in California, the importance of family dinners andterm limits for politicians and noted that the couple’s TV is mostly set to Fox News.
Uline is up-and-running because it supplies essential businesses that are generally exempt from state shelter-in-place orders. Packaging shipped from its warehouses across the U.S., as well as in Canada and Mexico, is used for the delivery of food, medicine and testing.
“This week, the White House called upon us twice with huge orders,” including 4,000 dust masks for local test centers, Liz Uihlein said in a March 19 email to employees. The company said the request came from a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on a White House coronavirus task force.
Uline said it has had Covid-19 infections in four locations and that it sent those workers home and notified and protected staffers; several of the recovered employees have returned to work. It said it instituted safety measures, including social-distancing, cleaning and masks.
The company’s professional employees — in roles such as sales, marketing and finance — stopped working from their offices in late March, though some are returning in staggered shifts.
While understanding the need for in-person warehouse employees, many staffers questioned why call-center workers had been asked to keep coming in, according to interviews with nine current and former staffers in professional, warehouse and customer-service roles. They requested anonymity because of concern over their jobs.
State orders, including the ones from Wisconsin and Illinois, say even essential businesses should promote telework when possible. Other large companies, such asVerizon Communications Inc., are handling all call-center operations from home.
Uline said its customer operations, which handle more than 35,000 calls and emails a day, aren’t designed to function remotely. More than 60% of that staff worked from home by the end of last month, according to the company.
To reward those remaining on site, Uline offers an extra $5 an hour. Those who can’t work remotely or don’t feel safe reporting to an office or warehouse receive reduced salaries — a measure similar to other companies that have cut pay or furloughed employees. Initially, Uline offered two-thirds pay; the company has since reduced the sum to one-half.
“Right now, our order and call volumes are not slowing down,” a voice mail from Uline to its staff said this month. “We need more employees on-site to help the teammates who are processing orders.”
— With assistance by Bill Allison, Tom Maloney, Justin Sink, and Scott Moritz
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