Mar 16, 2020 - Economy

Forgotten factory workers urge plant shutdowns as coronavirus spreads

Workers in close proximity at a Ford assembly plant

Ford factory employees work in close proximity, touching many of the same surfaces. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Pressure is building on automakers to halt U.S. production as hourly employees grow more anxious about their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Factory workers can't work from home, and on a vehicle assembly line, they work in close proximity, touching the same surfaces and sharing tools many times a day. Manufacturing workers in other industries face similar issues.

What's happening: Across Europe, automakers have been shutting plants in order to cope with parts shortages, falling car sales or worker safety. Experts say it's a sign of what's to come in the U.S.

  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Monday suspended production at most of its European facilities, including six in Italy and one each in Serbia and Poland.
  • Ford closed a plant in Spain after three workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • VW and Audi also throttled back production in Europe, Reuters reports, as did Ferrari, Lamborghini and premium brakes maker Brembo.

In the U.S., VW's Chattanooga plant was closed Monday for a deep cleaning, reports Automotive News.

  • An FCA worker at a Kokomo, Indiana, plant tested positive for the coronavirus last week, and those who worked nearby or may have come in contact with him have been told to stay home.

What to watch: So far, U.S. factories are still operating, but the situation is fluid and stakeholder discussions are underway.

  • GM, Ford, and FCA formed a coronavirus task force with the UAW union to implement ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Steps include enhanced visitor screening, increased cleaning and sanitizing of common areas and touch points, and safety protocols for people who are sick or have been exposed to the illness.
  • In some cases, companies are slowing assembly lines to allow more social distancing for workers.
  • They're also staggering break times to reduce exposure in lunchrooms and other common areas.

Yes, but: Union leaders are sounding the alarm that it's not enough.

  • A Ford union leader in Kentucky asked the company to close the plant for two weeks as a precaution.
  • Workers at a minivan plant in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit, temporarily walked off the job one day last week over fears that a co-worker had been exposed.

The bottom line: The auto industry is a major cog in the U.S. economy, accounting for 2.8% of GDP. Any interruption only adds to the country's economic pain.

  • But people who are hunkered down and worried about job security aren't going to be buying cars anyway.
  • That could make factory closings inevitable.
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