U.S. Automakers Resume Vehicle Production, with New Safety Protocols in Place
U.S. automakers resumed operations on Monday after an unprecedented two month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the auto industry to a standstill.
On Monday, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) resumed production at their U.S. factories for the first time in nearly two months. FCA reopened four U.S. assembly plants on Monday, including Warren Truck, as well as four parts plants. For now, the Warren plant is operating on a single shift.
At FCA's plant in Warren, Michigan, hundreds of workers were lined up before 4 a.m. to start the 5 a.m. morning shift. Reuters reported that motivational signs were hung at the plant welcoming the workers back that read, "Let's restart."
However, with over 85,000 deaths in the U.S. due to the coronavirus, some workers remained apprehensive. The death toll in the U.S. is the world's highest.
Although some U.S. factories across multiple industries have begun the slow process of resuming operations, some employees remain a bit anxious that the manufacturing plants are indeed safe and they won't be exposed to the coronavirus.
The reopening of car plants will be a test of whether workers can return to factories in large numbers without a resurgence of infections.
"I'm a little nervous," said Larry Smith, 53 to Reuters. Smith works on wheel alignments away from the assembly line, he said. "They made all the precautions (and) they've done everything they can to prepare us ... I'm trusting in God."
The Detroit automakers have many older workers in states such as Michigan that were hit hard by the pandemic.
Theresa Segura, 61, of Lincoln Park, arrived for work at the FCA Warren plant on Monday but was immediately sent home after noting on an FCA questionnaire that she had been exposed to a family member who had just tested positive for the virus, Reuters reported.
Segura, who has worked at the truck plant since 1993, said she thought that it was in any case too soon to reopen "because there are still people sick out there."
"We're risking our lives going in there," said Segura, who works as a "floater," moving from job to job at the plant as needed.
The auto industry employs nearly one million workers in the U.S.
Despite the possible risks, Detroit automakers said on Monday there were no issues with absenteeism as the plants opened.
General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co. and FCA have all been preparing for weeks to reopen their North American factories in a push to restart work in an industry that accounts for about 6% of U.S. economic activity.
Ford implemented additional safety and care measures globally to help support a safe environment for the company's workforce, including health assessment measures, providing assembly line workers with personal protective equipment, including face masks and face shields for some employees, as well as facility modifications to increase social distancing.
Some assembly line tasks, such as installing seat belts that used to require two or more workers to get close together inside a vehicle have been redesigned in order to maintain social distancing.
The assembly line modifications include clear plastic screens to separate workers leaning into the engine compartments of vehicles to install various components.
Automakers have also reconfigured employee break areas to maintain safe CDC social distancing recommendations as an extra percaution.
To put the new safety protocols in place, the three Detroit automakers have collaborated together and with the United Auto Workers (UAW) to develop common coronavirus safety practices. Other automakers in the United States are adopting similar safety measures.
Foreign Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, BMW and Mercedes Benz all have U.S. assembly plants, although their employees are not members of the UAW.
In California, electric automaker Tesla, defied a shelter-in-place order still in effect in Alameda County until the end of the month and started operations at the plant. The county is where Tesla's Fremont factory is located. Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk even threatened to move the factory out of state if it wasn't allowed to reopen, calling the lockdowns "fascist."
However, Tesla was granted an exception to the county-wide shelter-in-place order and the plant opened on Monday after local authorities deemed that the necessary additional safety measures were in place.
Both General Motors and Ford have been hit hard by the shutdown, as a bulk of their profits come from pickup trucks and SUVs, and the mandatory shutdowns were a big cash drain.
The emphasis for the automakers include resuming the production of these highly profitable models, such as the Chevrolet Suburban SUV, Ford's F-150 pickup truck, which is the best selling truck in the U.S., and FCA's popular Jeep Wrangler SUV.
"Ultimately we're in this together. Because if we don't build trucks, Ford Motor Company is gone," said Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862, the union that represents more than 14,000 hourly workers at Ford's two Kentucky assembly plants, which build trucks and SUVs.
President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Michigan and will tour a Ford manufacturing plant that has been repurposed to make ventilators and personal protective equipment, according to the White House.
GM is reopening a number of plants on one shift, including 1,600 hourly workers making pickup trucks in Flint, Michigan, and 1,600 workers manufacturing pickups in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The restart of auto production also gave a boost to the automakers' stock. GM share price rose by nearly 10% on Monday, while Ford's stock is up just over 8%.
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