Mourning their dead, Detroit area families weigh risks of autoworkers going back

At least four workers from FCA's Warren Truck plant died of COVID-19 — the most of any facility operated by Detroit's automakers

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Renaye Seldon knew something was wrong when her husband called in the week of March 15 at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Warren Truck plant.

At first, Lorenzo thought his bronchitis was flaring, but this time it was unusually bad. He struggled to breathe.

"I knew he must have been really sick because he doesn’t take days off," Renaye said of her 51-year-old husband, a 19-year veteran at the plant and nine-year United Auto Workers steward in the paint department on first shift.

A few days later on March 20, Renaye, also 51, took him to the hospital. It was the last time she saw her husband alive. He died alone five days later in the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19.

In one of Renaye’s final messages to her husband, a nurse held a phone to Lorenzo’s ear. She played her husband of 23 years some of their wedding songs, including Luther Vandross’ soulful "For You to Love."

"That’s the part that bothers me through all of this because he died so alone," she said. "For him to have been the person that he was and to have died in the hospital by himself is the most disturbing thing to me."

Lorenzo is one of at least four workers from the Warren Truck plant to die of COVID-19 — the most of any plant operated by Detroit's automakers, according to the United Auto Workers. The plant employs almost 2,400 hourly workers.

At least 16 Fiat Chrysler and eight Ford Motor Co. workers have died from complications of COVID-19, the union said; an Aramark Corp. janitor at General Motors Co.’s Warren Tech Center also died. It is not clear whether the autoworkers contracted coronavirus at their workplaces or elsewhere.

Warren Truck workers particularly are worried about returning to work. And rank-and-file workers from plants at all three Detroit automakers are apprehensive at the possibility of being called to return as soon as mid-May to build cars, trucks and SUVs — depending on government restrictions and whether coronavirus outbreaks subside.

"FCA has not been spared from the very personal impact of COVID-19," Fiat Chrysler said in a statement. "It is with deep sadness that we remember those we have lost to this pandemic. During this difficult time, our thoughts are with them and their families.

This disease has profoundly affected the Metro Detroit community where so many of our employees live and work. We continue to make the health and well-being of our employees a top priority as we prepare to restart our operations."

The Italian American automaker has said it will use safety protocols implemented at plants that have resumed production in China and Italy. Those precautions include requiring masks, offering gloves, monitoring fevers, doing daily health screenings and redesigning work stations for proper social distancing. Additional sanitization measures have been deployed.

But some workers remain skeptical they will be protected inside plants with potentially thousands of workers, and hundreds touching the same product.

“I am not going in until I know that I will be safe,” said Ken Memmford, a 58-year-old paint-quality inspector at Warren who has gout, an enlarged heart and other conditions that he fears could make him more susceptible to COVID-19.

"I know personally two people have died from the plant. One worked literally four feet away — literally on the other side of me, down one."

Lives lost

Lorenzo Seldon of Farmington Hills could make a mean grilled barbecue chicken and follow it up with a delicious pound cake. He was a father of two adult sons, and he was "papa" to 5-year-old granddaughter Aliyah. He loved the Detroit Lions and old-school R&B music. His big personality lit up the room.

"He was truly my best friend," said Renaye, 51. "If I told you it was perfect, you wouldn’t believe me, but it was. He was just truly there. He was the best husband and best father."

He also was an attentive grandfather who picked up Aliyah from school when his son, 31-year-old Lonnie Hooper, was working. Seeing the interactions his father had with Aliyah are what Hooper will miss most — especially now that he has a son on the way, too.

"I told him I was actually scared to have a boy because I was scared of not being able to be the father he was to me and my little brother," Hooper said. But Lorenzo assured his son it would be OK, telling him: "Don’t worry. I’m not going nowhere no time soon, and I'm going to make sure to be there with you."

Colleagues said Lorenzo looked out for more than just his family as a UAW Local 140 steward: "When I was just getting over at the paint shop, I was just having so many issues," said Juanita Riddles, 33, of Detroit, who also works in the Warren paint shop.

"I talked to Lorenzo about it. Two days later, he had ensured me a spot as I was training-in. Lorenzo was someone that would keep things fair."

Funerals are anything but customary in the time of COVID-19. Lorenzo’s memorial service on Friday at Fisher Funeral Home in Redford Township had gloved and masked family and friends rotating through the funeral home in groups of 10 to pay their respects. Many wore shirts with Lorenzo’s face printed on them. Some had black masks with "RIH (Rest in Heaven) Lorenzo" printed across the front. 

The centerpiece in the memorial room was the Detroit Lions helmet urn that his family chose for the die-hard fan. A slideshow of images of Lorenzo with his family and friends played on as people offered their condolences. Flower arrangements lined the room including a wreath with "paint shop mafia" on its ribbon.

"I hope that he is looking down and seeing how much everybody loved him," Renaye said at the service before counting down for everyone to release balloons to the sky.

Renaye tested positive for COVID-19 as did her 21-year-old son, Marquis, though neither had many symptoms. She likely will never know where exactly her husband picked up the virus. But she has learned another worker in the Warren paint shop was sent home sick and later tested positive.

A paint shop colleague who worked the second shift, Catherine Bright Pace, 65, of Detroit died from complications of COVID-19 on March 27, just two days after Lorenzo.

"I don’t think it’s coincidence that people who worked in her department also passed," said Catherine's 41-year-old daughter, LaTonya Pace. "I don’t believe it was some fluke that happened.

"I’m angry with the automotive industry. Just like so many other industries, they felt the need to safeguard some, but not all. … I feel like my mother and others who worked in factories were considered disposable."

Fiat Chrysler eventually closed its plants starting March 18 after expanding its work-from-home policy to more of its white-collar office workers on March 12.

Catherine — her friends called her "Ms. Jazz," "Ms. Cat" and "Ms. Kitty Cat" — was an under-5-foot sparkling "blonde bombshell" who couldn't be missed in her bold platinum-blonde wig. She was a mom of three who coordinated her outfits to match from head to toe. Her nails were done and her hair was made up even when she was just working around the house.

"She was always very, very stylish," LaTonya said. "Her presence was always known when she walked in the room."

Catherine, who worked at the FCA plant for about a decade, adored her 14-year-old granddaughter, SaNiya Pace, and loved being her "granny."

She was known for spreading joy. She wore reindeer antlers to work at Christmas. She baked her signature pound cake for colleagues and friends.

"Every day, she would greet you with a smile," paint shop co-worker Riddles said. "She was very polite. She would bring in cookies. She was like your old-fashioned granny."

Catherine and her colleagues' last day was March 18. After she started to feel ill the following week, she decided to go to an urgent care center where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.

"On Wednesday, she was bad; Thursday she was real bad; and Friday, she was gone," said James Pace, Catherine’s husband of almost 47 years. The two would have celebrated their anniversary on April 6.

Catherine would have turned 66 on April 24 and intended to retire in June. She had trips planned to celebrate her free time.

She was not tested for COVID-19 until after her death. On the day she died, LaTonya visited her parents’ east side Detroit home to tell her mother she finally received a prescription for a test the next day at the State Fairgrounds. But upon her arrival, her mother was unresponsive. Paramedics came, but nothing could be done. Catherine had no pulse.

"This is one of the worst things I have experienced in my entire life," LaTonya said.

Her mother’s passing isn't just what makes life difficult right now. It’s the reality she died in the middle of a pandemic when "just the idea of hugging someone is virtually impossible. My mom passed, and I have not touched my dad. I haven’t touched or hugged anyone."

Catherine was a devout member of the Second Canaan Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit for more than 40 years, but she can't have a proper funeral yet because of the pandemic.

"I miss her," James said. "I don’t think it’s real. I know it’s real. I believe in the Lord. I believe everything happened for a reason. The house is quiet, but I got to just keep on."

Protecting workers

None of the Detroit Three have given specific dates on when they will start to reopen, though some paid volunteers last week returned to prepare facilities. The Detroit News previously reported that May 18 has been floated as a possible restart date, but the situation remains fluid.

GM and Ford last week shared more details on how they plan to reduce the risk of the virus spreading when production does restart. Their safety protocols are similar to those planned by Fiat Chrysler. 

When workers do return, GM says it will check for fevers, ask questions about symptoms, provide masks and safety glasses and enforce social distancing. Crews will clean common areas more frequently, and the company is installing hand-sanitizing stations. GM is working with testing labs to send samples from potentially positive employees, though it won’t screen all workers.

At Ford, before coming to work each day, employees must self-certify their health via an online form. No-touch thermometers will scan for fever upon their arrival. Kits with masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer will be provided. Safety glasses or face shields are required for those whose jobs don’t allow them to maintain the recommended six-foot separation. Hand-sanitizing stations will be available.

Ford will not have COVID-19 testing available for its entire workforce, officials said, but it has agreements in place with local hospitals and clinics to test those who have symptoms or have been exposed.

The UAW wants as much testing as possible.

"The UAW is monitoring very closely the health and safety impacts to our members in our plants," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement. "We continue to work with the companies to make sure that health and safety protocols will protect our brothers and sisters."

The UAW is tracking how many autoworkers have died from COVID-19 through its locals. It has found that more than 20 have died, with four of those workers, including Lorenzo and Catherine, from FCA Warren Truck. The Detroit News independently confirmed the identities of Lorenzo and Catherine. The union would not provide names of all the autoworkers who’ve died from the disease.

Apprehension remains

Some of the rank-and-file want assurances that automakers have enough personal protection equipment, that there will be enough soap and toilet paper in bathrooms, that they will have enough time to disinfect properly their work stations and that co-workers will be tested.

"On our line, there’s 10-15 people using a single water fountain," said Memmford, the paint quality inspector at Warren Truck. "And the bathrooms are all the way on the third floor. How safe does that sound to you?"

Some autoworkers said they are contemplating their options, from using unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act time to opting to retire.

“I don’t feel safe because I am an older guy; I’m 62 years old, and I have high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Aric Holloway, a 27-year Fiat Chrysler employee in Warren Truck’s shipping department. He’s considering retirement.

Some workers say they will be willing to stop the line if they don’t feel safe. Juanita Riddles was a part of a walkout at Warren Truck’s paint department prior to the plant’s shuttering, though the company said production was able to continue.

“If they can’t ensure I won’t bring this back to my children, I don’t want to go to work,” said Riddles, 33, who has a 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

For now, most workers say they will assess the situation when it comes time to return. For some, there’s more uncertainty than for others.

Meoshee Edwards, 47, of Harper Woods will start her first day at GM’s Toledo Transmission when she returns after transferring there from Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which is being retooled for electric vehicles.

“I am going to go, and we’ll just see,” said Edwards, who as a team leader at the Detroit plant took her own initiative to wipe down surfaces for team members even before the pandemic struck.

“I don’t know about their cafeteria. I don’t know the general manager. I don’t know anything. That’s the scary part. I’m not afraid to speak up about something, but when you’re new, you don’t have as much clout.”

After losing husband Lorenzo, Renaye Seldon now worries about son Lonnie Hooper, who works at Fiat Chryslers Toledo Assembly.

"Everybody needs to be tested, symptoms or not," she said. "I think that’s the only way you are going to get ahead of it. It’s so much unknown. You don’t know if they are really cleaning those plants like they need to clean those plants."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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