Mar 16, 2020 - Economy & Business

Forgotten factory workers urge plant shutdowns as coronavirus spreads

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.

Go deeper

Tesla will finally halt California production amid pandemic

Photo: David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

Telsa announced that it will suspend production at its chief U.S. plant, located in the Bay Area, on March 23 amid the coronavirus pandemic — a week after local authorities ordered all nonessential businesses to shut down.

The big picture: Tesla has been among a small number of businesses resisting a full shutdown of operations to curb the potential spread of the virus among workers. Local law enforcement has been in discussion with the company after it told employees to keep coming to work.

  • "Basic operations" that fall under the shutdown order's carveout for essential business will continue "to support our vehicle and energy service operations and charging infrastructure," Tesla added.

Go deeper: Automakers to close all plants over coronavirus fears

Ford, GE aim to make 50,000 ventilators in 100 days

A Model A-E ventilator, left, and a simple test lung. The ventilator uses a design that operates on air pressure without the need for electricity, addressing the needs of most COVID-19 patients. Photo: Ford

Ford and GE Healthcare announced plans on Monday to build a simplified ventilator design licensed from a Florida medical technology company, with the goal of producing 50,000 machines by early July, and up to 30,000 a month thereafter, to fight the coronavirus.

Why it matters: The companies are moving in "Trump time" to meet demand for urgently needed ventilators, says White House Defense Production Act Coordinator Peter Navarro. But with deaths expected to peak in two weeks, the machines won't arrive in large numbers in time to help the hardest-hit cities.

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The workers feeding America

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As worried shoppers buy in bulk, stress is mounting for retailers, warehouses and farms — which need more labor at the very time people are being told to stay at home.

Why it matters: America isn't running out of food. But there's increasing strain on the supply chain as the workers who produce and deliver our groceries are sheltering at home, quarantined or are (justifiably) too spooked to show up for work.