Infected workers, parts shortages slow auto factory restarts in US

DETROIT (AP) — The United States (US) auto industry’s coronavirus comeback plan was pretty simple: restart factories gradually and push out trucks and other vehicles for waiting buyers in states left largely untouched by the virus outbreak.

Yet the return from a two-month production shutdown has not gone quite according to plan. For some automakers, full production has been delayed, or it has been herky-herky, with production lines stopping and starting due to infected workers or parts shortages from Mexico and elsewhere.

Most automakers closed factories in mid-to-late March when workers began to get sick as the novel coronavirus spread. The factories started to reopen on one or two shifts in mid-May as state stay-home restrictions eased, with automakers touting safety precautions that include checking workers’ temperatures, certification by workers that they do not have symptoms, social distancing, time between shifts and plastic barriers where possible to keep
workers apart.

Still, some workers got COVID-19, although it is not known where they were infected. In some cases they still came to work, forcing companies to close plants temporarily for cleaning. In at least one case, a worker at a seat-making plant near Chicago got the virus, forcing a shutdown and cutting off parts. General Motors had to delay adding shifts at truck plants because the Mexican government would not allow full parts factory restarts until June 1.

Ford seemed to be hit the hardest, pausing production a half-dozen times in Dearborn, Michigan; Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri; to disinfect equipment and isolate workers who may have come in contact with those who tested positive.

Honda and Toyota reported brief production pauses to disinfect equipment when a small number of workers became infected. GM and Fiat Chrysler said they have not shut down production lines due to infected workers.

Robots weld the bed of a 2018 Ford F-150 truck on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan. PHOTO: AP

None of the automakers would give exact numbers of workers who have become ill since plants were restarted. The United Auto Workers union said Ford and GM had at least a half-dozen cases, while Fiat Chrysler had five. At least 25 UAW members employed by the Detroit

Three died from the virus this year, but it is not clear where they caught it.

US auto sales tanked since the virus began spreading in March, with sales in April down 46 per cent from a year ago. Analysts are forecasting an improvement in May, but still a year-over-year decline of more than 30 per cent. Cox Automotive predicts that May pickup truck sales will be down 18 per cent from a year ago.

Despite those declines, automakers are reporting depleted supplies at some dealers, especially for pickup trucks in the Midwest.

Assembly lines at Ford’s 4,000-worker pickup factory in Dearborn, Michigan, have been closed twice due to workers with the virus or union fears that the shutdowns were not long enough.

GM spokesman Brian Rothenberg said it is being vigilant about making sure companies follow safety protocols.

Ford procedures, following newer recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and epidemiologists, said equipment is safe within minutes of being disinfected.

GM announced that production will get closer to normal starting Monday as it adds shifts “to meet strengthening customer demand and strong dealer demand”.