Automaker employees who work shoulder-to-shoulder say plants should have closed earlier

While Detroit’s “Big Three” have all suspended North American production until at least March 30, some workers have expressed frustration, if not outright anger, that the automakers took so long to close their plants.

“Most of us on the line were terrified, putting on extra gloves, trying to cover up as much as we could, even bringing in Lysol from our homes to clean up our stations,” said Marie, an employee at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, about working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles all announced last Wednesday they would be closing plants across North America due to concerns about the coronavirus. GM said it would be closing all North American factories at least until March 30, with a weekly re-evaluation after that date. FCA said it would progressively shutter plants “through the end of March.”

Ford, which originally said it would be closing plants through March 30, announced Tuesday the shutdown would continue past that date, saying “Ford’s top priority is the health and safety of our employees, dealers, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. In light of various governments’ orders to stay and work from home, Ford is not planning to restart our plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico on Monday, March 30 as originally hoped.”

The shutdowns affect approximately 150,000 union workers, according to the United Auto Workers labor union. GM has 11 factories, Ford has eight, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has six.

As with most of the employees who spoke to NBC News, Marie asked not to be identified by her full name, fearing reprisal for going public. One FCA worker at the company’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters has died from COVID-19 and several other employees at Ford, GM, and FCA have tested positive.

NBC News spoke to workers from all three manufacturers, and the common thread was a fear about becoming infected by the coronavirus at work. They also all expressed frustration, if not outright anger, that the automakers took so long to close their plants.

“UAW members, their families and our communities will benefit from today’s announcement with the certainty that we are doing all that we can to protect our health and safety during this pandemic,” Rory Gamble, head of the UAW labor union said on Wednesday. “This will give us time to review best practices and to prevent the spread of this disease.”

“They shut down (Ford) world headquarters and sent salaried people to work from home. It was a kind of a slap in the face for us hourly people that they didn’t care enough about us,” said April Bau Ocha, a 21-year industry veteran who works on the automaker’s Kansas City Assembly Plant line, building F-150 pickups. Ford sent contractors and non-manufacturing workers home last Monday, two days before it announced it would be closing plants.

If anything, Ocha suggested employees at automotive manufacturing sites face far more risk than those sitting at an office desk where it should be possible to socially distance the requisite six feet or more.

“When you’re in these kinds of places, you’re an arm’s length away from other people and there are thousands of people in the plant. We’re our own small city and we’re on top of each other,” said Ocha, adding that, “It’s impossible to have a safe distance from other people.”

Despite the shutdowns, all three companies will still require some hourly employees, such as electricians and plumbers, to remain on site for maintenance and repair work during the down time. Sanitation crews will also remain on the job to fully disinfect potential contamination sites.

Among the workers who spoke to NBC News, the issue of cleanliness came up frequently. One worker at a big Detroit-area assembly plant spoke of a lack of hand sanitizers and even soap, hot water and paper towels, in the days leading up to the shutdown.

Asked about such worker conditions, all three automakers said they had taken steps to ensure worker safety at their facilities.

GM said it had taken steps before plants were closed to “ensure health and safety,” according to a statement. That included restrictions on access to the plants by outsiders, “redeploying cleaning crews and sanitation supplies, changing policies in cafeterias and implementing safety protocols for those who might be sick.”

“We will continue to do what is right for our people through this period of uncertainty….to ensure employees feel safe at work and that we are taking every step possible to protect them,” said Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley, in a statement.

“We are closely monitoring and following health and wellness guidance from global and national health experts,” a spokesperson for Ford told NBC News on Tuesday, noting that the company has provided additional hand sanitizer and wipes, stepped up the frequency of its cleaning, and “encouraged” social distancing.

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