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Dirty Workplaces Have Fiat Staff Sounding Alarm Over Virus Risk

March 17, 2020
Michigan workers say they were asked to provide additional janitorial duties at Fiat's Michigan auto plants.

Workers at several Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV factories are up in arms about unclean conditions at plants the carmaker has kept running amid the coronavirus outbreak.

While some auto factories don’t have a reputation for being sparkling clean, the extra effort needed to sanitize workplaces to ward off the virus has made the issue more top-of-mind. At a Fiat Chrysler stamping plant in Warren, Michigan, bathrooms that were unsanitary in the past remained dirty and lacked soap on March 16. Employees who were asked to sanitize their work stations didn’t have proper supplies to do so as of this morning, according to one worker at the plant and a union representative’s letter shared with Bloomberg News.

Some employees at the company’s Ram pickup plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, were asked to come in over the weekend to help clean the facility and supplement the janitorial staff, according to another worker, who said some staffers refused because they weren’t trained or didn’t feel safe. The employees in Warren and Sterling Heights asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.

The conditions at the two factories and struggle to quickly cleanse them shows the extent of the challenge that awaits the chief executive officers of Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., who announced March 15 they’ll form a task force with leaders of the United Auto Workers to cope with the effects of the coronavirus. The three companies said they are enhancing visitor screening, cleaning common areas more regularly and implementing safety protocols for people with potential exposure to Covid-19. The president of the union said all options are on the table with respect to protecting workers from exposure.

The Warren stamping plant has implemented a comprehensive plan that includes increased intervals of cleaning in high-traffic, high-use areas, said Jodi Tinson, a Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman. The company brought in cleaning crews March 15 for both the second and third shifts that aren’t normally scheduled, she said.

Several production workers at the Sterling Heights factory did agree to come in and help sanitize the plant over the weekend, she said.

“They’ve increased the frequency of cleaning to three times a day,” she said. “There’s certainly much more frequent cleaning going on and checking washrooms every two hours to make sure they’re not being abused.”

Spared Shutdowns

U.S. auto factories have largely been spared shutdowns related to the global pandemic, though Volkswagen AG announced the idling of its assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on March 16. Fiat Chrysler said that it’s temporarily suspending production across the majority of its European manufacturing plants through March 27. It’s idled work at facilities in Italy, which has the world’s second-highest number of diagnosed cases -- about 28,000 known infections -- and more than 2,100 deaths.

Staffers briefly refused to work at a Fiat Chrysler minivan plant last week and in the paint shop of a truck factory March 16 out of fear of getting sick. Production resumed at the van facility in Windsor, Ontario, and wasn’t affected at the pickup plant in Warren.

Other plants, including a Jeep and Dodge sport utility vehicle factory in Detroit and a Wrangler SUV facility in Toledo, Ohio, have stepped up cleaning efforts by giving people disinfectant to wipe down their stations and bringing in extra cleaning crews, workers at the facilities said.

Last week, a worker at Fiat Chrysler’s transmission plant in Kokomo, Indiana, tested positive for the coronavirus, and those who worked nearby or may have come in contact with him have been put in home quarantine.

“Operations at our manufacturing plants and parts distribution centers will be monitored daily for any changes,” Mark Stewart, chief operating officer for Fiat Chrysler North America, wrote in an undated letter to staff. “We have implemented processes to ensure the health and safety of those who remain on site and will continue to do so.”

Task Force

The task force the automakers and UAW have formed will focus on vehicle production plans, additional social distancing, break and cleaning schedules, health-and-safety education and health screening, according to a statement released Sunday.

Ford hasn’t had workers walk out of U.S. plants and doesn’t plan to close any at this time. The company shut down a plant in Valencia, Spain, for this week after three employees there tested positive for the virus. Employees at a truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan, filed a written grievance on Sunday asking the company to idle the plant for two weeks.

At GM assembly plants in Lake Orion and Lansing, Michigan, the company has enlisted outside crews to clean work areas, according to union local presidents. Bottles of cleaning solution are located around the plant for workers to use, and the company is leaving doors open so employees don’t have to touch the handles, said Louis Rocha, president of UAW Local 5960, which represents the staff in Lake Orion.

“We’ve had a couple of employees go home sick but we don’t know if it’s coronavirus,” Rocha said. “We’re continuing to work.”

By Gabrielle Coppola

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Licensed content from Bloomberg, copyright 2016.

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