Forgotten factory workers urge plant shutdowns as coronavirus spreads
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.