On May 18, the factories of General Motors Co., Ford Motors Co., and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles NV roared back to life following months of suspended production due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early in the pandemic, the three Michigan-based automakers and the United Auto Workers formed the Auto Coronavirus Task Force in order to align their virus response. Following pressure from the UAW union, which represents workers at all three automakers, GM, Ford, and Fiat announced March 18 they would close production at their plants for at least two weeks. Now, two months later, those plants actually are opening again, albeit with safety measures and fewer shifts than usual.
According to the UAW, the auto union will be monitoring the situation closely. “The UAW will continue to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of all members as plants reopen,” they said in a statement.
Restarting production might also involve logistical difficulties. On May 15, Daimler AG said they would suspend production again at its Alabama Mercedez-Benz plant after part shortages made continued operation impractical.
The plants might look a little different than they did before, thanks to safety measures. All three automakers say they’ve increased safety at the plants, including plastic shielding and signs enforcing physical distancing. GM and Ford are employing thermal cameras at the entrances to their plants, and FCA is providing employees with thermometers so they can check themselves at home. General Motors said on its website that each employee will be provided with a face mask, which they are “required to wear at all times, except when eating or drinking.” Ford’s worker-provided PPE includes a watch that beeps when workers get too close together.
In a statement on General Motors’s website, the Detroit-based automaker signaled confidence in its safety protocols implemented so far. The company’s Warren, Michigan and Kokomo, Indiana plants have remained open as part of GM’s partnership with Ventec Life Systems to help construct ventilator life-support systems. According to GM, those plants have not yet seen a confirmed case of person-to-person spread of the virus.
The companies have also signaled they will provide tests for employees. Ford Motors announced March 16 that it had contracted with health systems in four metro areas—southeast Michigan, Louisville, Kansas City, and Chicago—to test local hourly and salaried employees with suspected COVID-19 symptoms. Those testing protocols will cover more than 72,500 employees, including 46,000 near Ford’s Michigan headquarters.
“We are working on quickly expanding testing of symptomatic employees,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s Chief Technology Officer. General Motors says it will offer a test to employees who show symptoms of COVID-19 at work, and that workers found to have been exposed to the virus will receive paid time off.