Automakers agree on coronavirus measures to keep plants running

Detroit automakers Ford, General Motors, FCA agree to close all US plants

Automakers agree on coronavirus measures to keep plants running

CDC says coronavirus 'does not spread easily' by touching surfaces or objects. But it still 'may be possible.' USA TODAY

The Detroit Three automakers agreed Wednesday to UAW demands to shut down all North American plants as a precaution against coronavirus.

During the shutdown, the union members will get paid similar to the compensation plan for when they are on a leave, said Brian Rothenberg, UAW spokesman.

“The contract allows for supplemental pay on top of their unemployment, which is about 88% of their pay,” said Rothenberg.

Ford Motor Co. said that after Thursday evening shifts, the company will temporarily suspend production at its North America plants to March 30 to clean its facilities to protect its workforce and boost containment efforts for the coronavirus.

Ford said it will continue to work closely with union leaders to find ways to help keep workers healthy and safe, “even as we look at solutions for continuing to provide the vehicles customers really want and need,” said Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America. “In these unprecedented times, we’re exploring unique and creative solutions to support our workforce, customers, dealers, suppliers and communities.”

Wednesday's action is prudent, said UAW President Rory Gamble.

“By taking a shutdown and working through next steps, we protect UAW members, their families and the community,” said Gamble. “We have time to review best practices when the plants reopen, and we prevent the possible spread of this pandemic. We commend Ford for working with us and taking this bold step.”

Not included in the shutdown are Ford’s parts distribution centers such as Ford Brownstown Parts Redistribution Center in Romulus, said Kelli Felker, Ford spokeswoman. GM said its U.S. parts depots also remain open, but “We are developing operating plans” for them, said Jim Cain, GM spokesman. FCA was not immediately available to comment on the status of its parts depots.

Felker was not able to provide how many parts depots Ford has in the United States.

“Our parts depots remain open because we consider it essential to ensure the mobility of critical people,” Felker said.

But a worker at one of the depots told the Free Press that with more than 400 employees in the building, “I find this pretty irresponsible, but I guess it's their decision to make.”  He asked to not be identified for fear of retribution.

Earlier, Ford temporarily closed Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne after an employee tested positive. Ford is cleaning and disinfecting the building. Ford will halt production there through March 30.

General Motors confirmed Wednesday it will begin a “systematic orderly suspension of manufacturing operations in North America due to market conditions and to deep clean facilities and continue to protect people.”

Its suspension of production will last until at least March 30, the company said. After that, production status will be evaluated week-to-week.

“GM and the UAW have always put the health and safety of the people entering GM plants first,” said GM CEO Mary Barra. “We have been taking extraordinary precautions around the world to keep our plant environments safe and recent developments in North America make it clear this is the right thing to do now.”

GM will suspend operations in a cadence to ensure an orderly production halt, with each facility receiving specific instructions from manufacturing leadership.

GM spokesman Jim Cain said employees will be compensated. “We are working with the UAW on the specific details.” 

FCA's plans

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said it will cease production at plants across North America, “starting progressively from today through the end of March.” The company will review and enhance safety measures during that time and evaluate the next steps.

“Working with the UAW, and having visited many of our plants yesterday, we need to ensure employees feel safe at work and that we are taking every step possible to protect them,” CEO Mike Manley said in a statement. “We will continue to do what is right for our people through this period of uncertainty.”

The automaker is also evaluating “the impact of all steps being taken inside the company related to the coronavirus emergency on our current financial guidance,” said FCA spokeswoman Jodi Tinson in a statement.

FCA will provide an update on the impact to its bottom line after that evaluation and a judging of market conditions.

More temporary halts

Honda North America and BMW said they are closing plants throughout the U.S. and Europe in part because of the coronavirus outbreak dinging consumer demand for cars. 

wise, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama announced Wednesday it was suspending production at a plant in Alabama after an employee tested positive.

Volkswagen Group of America said it has closed its offices in Auburn Hills because an employee there had a positive test. .  

Volkswagen said the building will remain shut while it undergoes a deep cleaning. The person had a fever a week ago and has since stayed home from work. Other employees were immediately informed and have since been in self-quarantine. The person who tested positive no longer has symptoms but remains in self-quarantine, Volkswagen said in a statement. 

Relieved workers

A stream of workers at some plants confirmed to the Free Press that they were notified about plans to shut down after noon. 

Workers agreed a shutdown is necessary.

Tommy Wolikow, a general assembly worker at General Motors' Flint Assembly plant, said he worries every day he goes in the plant that he might get coronavirus and pass it on to his children, ages 2 and 7.

“Walking into work each day, I had that feeling that it's scary walking past somebody and handing parts to somebody. … I could contract the virus,” said Wolikow. “What's really scary is I feel this hasn't even peaked yet.” 

Wolikow said he also worries about how the shutdown will affect the economy. He said his 401K took a big hit since the coronavirus crisis started in late January. He's saved enough money to get by for now, but worries about the impact of a prolonged shutdown.

James Hudson, a pipefitter who has worked for Fiat Chrysler for 35 years, said he looked forward to leaving the Jefferson North Assembly Plant.

“The air in here has been eerie. You could feel it when come into the plant. Nobody’s talking even on their breaks, they’re sitting at tables by themselves. You can tell there’s a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I think the Big Three could’ve done this before now. It’s easy to say we’re looking out for our people but another thing to show it.”

Hudson said it is hard for workers to feel safe with 1,700 or 1,800 people per shift, comparing it to “a big city.”

“For those of us taking things seriously, I feel we’re being put in harm’s way,” Hudson said. “Now they’re telling everybody to go home and be safe. And that’s great.”

Many agree, at this point idling the plants was necessary.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862, which includes 14,300 members at the Kentucky Truck Plant and Louisville Assembly Plant. “The bigger-picture issue is to figure out a long-term plan. This is not gonna be a two-week issue. This could be a two-month issue. A long-term plan is just as important if not more important.”

Worker well-being first

Elected officials acknowledged the move to idle the plants was a tough call given the auto industry's impact on the overall economy.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the automakers' move will impact Michigan's economy. Whitmer, who has been in contact with leaders of the UAW and auto companies, said, “They’re grappling with a lot of the same challenges and questions we all are. The factory setting is a unique setting. I trust this was the right judgment.

“These are people who work hard and are the backbone of the Michigan and American economy. I know this is not an easy decision for them and that’s why it’s so critical that everyone does our part to get our economy back up and running at the quickest and safest possible moment.”

Whitmer urged people to take this seriously, noting Michigan had its first coronavirus-related death Wednesday.

“There are other people who have been diagnosed who are fighting for their lives. Everybody needs to be fighting this so that the UAW and the Big Three can get back up and running again,” Whitmer said. “I’m grateful they were able to come together, but I am concerned, of course, about the impact of the Michigan economy.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said the impact of a plant production stoppage could harm the American economy, but the first priority is to mitigate the spread of this virus.

“UAW leadership was focused on protecting the health and safety of their workers as a first priority,” said Dingell. “The effects of the virus will ripple through our economy for a long time. However we will never be able to rebound without the hardworking men and women of the auto industry.”

Dingell said she will press Congress and the Trump administration to deliver resources “to address the impact of the virus now and in the future, and what we need to do to protect workers jobs and ensure a safe and healthy work environment. Going forward the unions and the companies need to work together closely to protect workers and the stability of the industry.” 

A shutdown was expected, some analysts said, but it will hurt the companies financially.

“It doesn’t come as a surprise, especially after all the plant closings in Europe,” Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Cox Automotive, said. “We anticipate sales will drop. Frankly, they don’t need all of that production right now. Inventories are in pretty good shape.”

John McElroy, a veteran industry analyst and host of “Autoline After Hours,” said in response to news of a shutdown, “The Detroit Three tried to keep their plants running to see if they could avoid a financial disaster. But the virus outran their efforts. Now they're entering uncharted territory, and in a worst-case scenario they're going to need financial help once the crisis is over.”

The decision to idle was ly a difficult decision for the Detroit Three, said Jon Gabrielsen, an auto industry economist. He said for every assembly plant job there are four other jobs in the industry and community connected to it.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book, said the shutdowns are unfortunate, but not unexpected. 

“There was no reason to think auto manufacturing would be immune to the impact of COVID-19. We’ve already seen it alter business practices across every sector of the U.S. market,” said Brauer. “This is another example of being potentially over-cautious early in an outbreak versus trying to catch up after things have gone sideways. I’ll take the former option every time.”

The long-term impact on production and sales is impossible to predict, said Brauer. But many retail sectors are slowing down, so the idling production may be prudent even without any coronavirus at the plants. 

Staff writer Kathleen Gray contributed to this report.

Contact Jamie LaReau: or 313-222-2149.

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Detroit automakers keep masks on to keep the factories running

Automakers agree on coronavirus measures to keep plants running

By Joseph White

DETROIT (Reuters) – When the coronavirus pandemic slammed the United States in March, the Detroit Three automakers shut their plants and brought their North American vehicle production to an unprecedented cold stop.

A General Motors assembly worker loads engine block castings on to the assembly line at the GM Romulus Powertrain plant in Romulus, Michigan, U.S. August 21, 2019. Picture taken August 21, 2019. Rebecca Cook

Now, four months after a slow and sometimes bumpy restart in May, many General Motors Co GM.N, Ford Motor Co F.N and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV FCHA.MI factories are working at close to full speed, chasing a stronger-than-expected recovery in sales.

So far, none of the Detroit Three has had a major COVID-19 outbreak since restarting production, even as the coronavirus is surging in Midwestern and Southern communities outside factory walls.

“We have people testing positive, but it’s not affecting operations,” said Ford global manufacturing chief Gary Johnson.

Keeping the pandemic at bay has pushed the automakers and 156,000 U.S. factory employees represented by the United Auto Workers into unfamiliar work routines and extraordinary levels of cooperation among rivals that will have to be sustained for months to come.

For automakers, the automakers’ COVID response has been as much about instilling new habits as relying on new technology. Workers log their symptoms, or lack of them, into smartphone apps and walk past temperature scanners to get to their work stations.

But company and union executives said masks, along with physical distancing, are the key to keeping assembly lines rolling.

“The mask is the foundation” of protecting workers on the job, said Gerald Johnson, GM’s head of global manufacturing.


Auto workers are accustomed to wearing protective gear such as shatterproof glasses and gloves.

Masks that cover the mouth and nose, however, were not standard equipment on auto assembly lines, and were a tough sell at first.

“The biggest complaint is wearing a mask,” United Auto Workers president Rory Gamble told Reuters. “A lot of our members perform physical tasks. Wearing the mask inhibits breathing.”

Beyond that, Gamble said, masks and distancing make it harder for workers to have conversations on the job or socialize during breaks. “That’s pretty much out the window, and it makes for a longer day,” he said.

Masks make it harder for co-workers to read each other’s expressions – often crucial in the noisy environment of a car plant. At GM factories, employees wear badges that show their face framed by the message: “I’m smiling behind my mask.”

The politicized controversy over mask-wearing means company and union officials have to put their messages about the importance of keeping masks on a constant repeat cycle.

“There was a lot of mixed messaging coming Washington that gave us some heartburn,” Gamble said. The automakers and the union agreed to follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. All three companies also adapted measures taken at their plants in China, which were hit first as the pandemic spread.

At GM’s Factory Zero in Detroit, UAW skilled trades worker Scott Harwick said the mask wearing debate outside the plant isn’t an issue inside. Sometimes a co-worker will let a mask slip during a long hot shift, he said. “You don’t have to say anything, you just tap on your mask.”


Coronavirus safety has now become one of the rare areas in which the automakers do not compete. Instead, the CEOs of the Detroit Three and the UAW formed an extraordinary task force that meets biweekly to share information and coordinate safety policies.

The discussions can be as detailed as whether safety glasses or face shields offer better protection, said Scott Garberding, global head of manufacturing for Fiat Chrysler.

The restart has hit obstacles, executives and UAW leaders said.

Some workers have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that COVID safety procedures are not being followed, according to OSHA records.

Ford and Fiat Chrysler said the complaints have been resolved. GM said four of six complaints lodged with OSHA have been closed, and it has not been cited or inspected by OSHA related to its COVID protocols.

“We are confident in our multi-layered approach to COVID-19 safety, which has proven effective in preventing workplace transmission of COVID-19 in our facilities,” GM spokesman Dan Flores said in a statement.

The Detroit automakers test workers who exhibit symptoms associated with coronavirus infection, but have not adopted widespread testing for their 156,000 factory workers.

All three companies have encountered workers who tested positive for COVID-19 exposure, and early on there were brief shutdowns to clean plants.

Absenteeism rates are still higher than normal at some plants, driven both by concerns about infection and problems getting child care. UAW leaders have granted the companies more flexibility to use temporary workers. The automakers have begun helping workers obtain or pay for child care.

Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant and Louisville Assembly Plant are using about 2,000 temporary workers, said Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862, which represents about 16,000 hourly workers at the plants.

“There are issues every night,” he said. “But the line’s still running.”

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