Automakers prep new safety measures for workers' Monday return

Ypsilanti — After idling for nearly eight weeks, assembly plants of Detroit's three automakers will begin building vehicles again Monday. But how quickly they can increase production will depend on consumer demand, their supply bases and the trajectory of coronavirus infections.

Dan Kimderlin installs a regulator hose inside a ventilator at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Resuming production is the next step in the restart of the auto industry that accounts for hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and nearly 4% of the national economy — amid a global viral pandemic the likes of which most of the world hasn't seen since the Spanish flu of 1918.

"This is the most complicated and the most stressful event we've been through," Gary Johnson, Ford Motor Co.'s chief manufacturing and labor affairs officer, told The Detroit News. "It'll be the first time in history everybody comes back up at the same time."

The complex process, as much technical as it is medical, is testing management and labor in almost equal measure. Ramona Jocys has helped to test Ford's new safety and health protocols while building ventilators for the federal government at the automaker's Rawsonville Components plant in Ypsilanti.

"I think being here at Rawsonville has kind of set the stage as to what I can expect at my home plant," said the 50-year-old Garden City resident who is set to return Monday to the Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne. "Everybody is a little nervous because this is uncharted territory. ... But so far everybody is cautiously optimistic."

Brad Carson installs a part inside a ventilator at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

The companies are anxious to return to producing trucks and SUVs as they bleed billions in cash, but they also do not want to risk being forced to shut down again because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Backlash from the rank-and-file who felt they were putting themselves and their families at risk in March contributed to the automakers’ decision to suspend production as demand also fell under government stay-at-home orders.

“This isn’t flipping a switch and everybody is back all at once," said Jim Glynn, General Motor Co.'s vice president of global workplace safety. "Even within a plant, it will be phased-in shift by shift by shift. We will let the data determine our capability to throttle up. Our first priority is the health and safety of our folks.”

GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV say they have developed proper health and safety protocols battling COVID-19 in facilities at home and abroad. They tested them in China, in Europe and U.S. plants making medical supplies and equipment.

Signs are posted throughout the plant as a reminder to follow safe procedures at Ford's Rawsonville plant, where the automaker is making respirators, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Since implementing new safety protocols, "we have had no transmission of the virus in our facilities," said Gerald Johnson, GM's global head of manufacturing, this week during an online presentation hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Some workers have returned to the auto plants early to prepare for Monday's restart. On Wednesday, a Fiat Chrysler employee at Sterling Heights Assembly plant was sent home after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the company and the United Auto Workers.

The company was following additional cleaning and quarantine protocols, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. It is unclear from where the employee contracted the virus, though the individual and colleagues were wearing face masks and safety glasses, Mark Stewart, chief operating officer of North America, wrote in a letter to members Wednesday night.

"I am pleased to say that our protocols worked as envisaged," Stewart wrote. "The person was isolated and quarantined, more importantly our social distancing and personal protection equipment protocols were in full use. ... We were also able, as a result of our review of the protocols and how they worked, to strengthen the criteria for entering a facility."

Andrew Boes installs a rate timer inside a ventilator at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

'Complicated synchronization'

The automakers are resuming production in phases. GM is starting its North American plants with one shift, though truck plants in Flint; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Arlington, Texas, could have three shifts running as early as the week of June 1, according to a cadence schedule obtained by The News that the automaker confirmed. GM's target to return shifts to pre-pandemic levels is June 15 — "if demand is there," company spokesman Dan Flores said.

That might be a "stretch goal," said Jeff Schuster, head of global vehicle forecasting for LMC Automotive. The research firm expects total U.S. light vehicle production won't match its pre-COVID-19 forecast until December. Demand could take until 2023 to return to more normal levels.

"I think it's a bit aggressive just given the unknown," Schuster said of GM's target. "You've seen a deep decline in the economy. It's going to take a while to get the unemployment rate down to pre-COVID levels. To get back to normal from this deep is challenging."

Ford, likewise, is phasing its ramp-up. Plants with three-shift patterns are returning with two, and most two-shift plants with one. Ford's Johnson said the company hopes production will be in full swing within weeks, not months.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said during an earnings call last week that ramp-up will vary by plant and consumer demand, though jobs per hour will be reduced to accommodate social distancing.

As they look to resume and increase production, automakers must examine the virus' spread, the supply chain's readiness and consumer demand, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor: "It's a very complicated synchronization between health, supply and vehicle demand" — which applies to Detroit's foreign rivals, too.

Jamie Baxendale packs a ventilator for shipping at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama was among the first to restart production in late April in North America followed by Hyundai Motor Co. on May 4. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. resumed production this week along with Tesla Inc., whose standoff with California’s Alameda County ended Wednesday when the county agreed the Fremont factory could operate, despite doing so there earlier this week against county orders, according to CEO Elon Musk.

Volkswagen AG said Wednesday it will ramp up in Tennessee beginning Sunday. Nissan Motor Corp. earlier this month extended its shutdown indefinitely, citing market demand and supplier readiness.

Michigan on Monday opened the way for manufacturers to resume production after auto suppliers expressed the need to restart ahead of the auto companies to fill the parts pipeline. Mexico, which supplies 40% of imported auto parts, also will allow auto production starting Monday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday. But the strain on suppliers' liquidity has threatened the survival of some, Dziczek said.

Automakers and suppliers say they are in almost daily contact with each other ahead of the restart: “We know that our ability to start up our operations is dependent on all of our suppliers,” GM's Glynn said. “It’s the classic 'we are only as good as our weakest supplier.’"

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on demand, which in the United States has fallen 20% year-to-date, according to LMC. Profit-heavy truck sales, on the other hand, have dropped just 4%, leading to lighter inventories at some dealers. And after a better-than-expected April and early May, Schuster expects LMC will increase its annual sales forecast by 500,000 vehicles from 12.9 million. It remains a major decline from 2019's 17 million vehicles sold, but is spurring hopes for a quick recovery.

In other words, Dziczek said, a "V" recovery: "But the risk is being a 'W.' ... The risk of having to shut down again really unwinds capital in the auto sector."

A finished ventilator ready for packing and shipping at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

'Going to be OK'

Extensive measures are seeking to avoid spreading the virus in the plants. When returning to work, employees will stand on marks on the ground 6 feet apart to turn in a questionnaire. Those who indicate they have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or traveled within the past two weeks will be sent home.

The procedure has been effective, Ford's Johnson said. The questionnaire stopped a supplier employee visiting a Ford plant who tested positive for COVID-19 after expressing symptoms. Ford determined the individual had contact with one person in the plant, who went into quarantine.

At GM and Ford, thermal cameras will check workers' temperatures. FCA is providing thermometer strips for employees to check daily their temperatures within two hours of going to work.

For those who show symptoms or are exposed to COVID-19, the companies will help them with access to testing. GM and Ford have partnered with local health systems to provide that service. Not everyone will be tested, though the UAW is pushing for that when resources become available.

Local union leaders say the automakers have listened to requests from them and the rank-and-file. After expressing concerns about ventilation, GM upgraded the system so it pulls 100% from the outside instead of recycling air, said Eric Welter, UAW Local 598 shop chairman at Flint Assembly. The automaker also added more hand-washing stations and opened another exit to help workers on different shifts avoid coming into contact with each other. The companies also are extending time between shifts for additional cleaning.

Workers check at with Gary Bero at the temperature scanning station before entering Ford's Rawsonville plant, where the automaker is making respirators, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

“They have really been trying to do the right thing,” Welter said. “They really don’t want people to get sick. And they want people to be very comfortable coming in. They know they are going to be very tense and upset and anxious, and they want them to feel like: ‘Nope, it’s going to be OK.’”

At Ford, local plant officials this week spoke with their European counterparts about their restart process, said Shaun Whitehead, Ford's director of manufacturing, transmission and driveline components. They now are considering installing additional hand-washing stations. And plant officials continue to work through logistical challenges, such as the limited availability of cleaning supplies and how to keep workers distanced during breaks.

The companies are providing face masks each day. They have installed thousands of hand sanitizer dispensers as well as plexiglass partitions between workstations and seats in cafeterias and break rooms. The companies have distanced workstations where possible.

Ford is requiring employees working within 6 feet of each other to wear face shields in addition to masks and providing wristwatches that beep when workers get too close and help trace contact. Employees also will have disinfectants at their workstations to clean before and after their shifts.

After deep cleaning facilities during the downtime, the automakers also have increased the frequency of cleaning common areas such as break rooms and restrooms and high-touch surfaces, including doorknobs and handrails. Signs and visual cues provide reminders for social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

Damian Durham works on the line building ventilators inside Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

'Some anxiety'

The automakers recently sent home fliers and packets with details on the return-to-work policies to tens of thousands of employees. GM's kit included masks for use outside of work, as well.

Before production begins, all workers will go through an orientation on new procedures and be encouraged to ask questions. Ford plant managers are calling workers slated to return next week to talk through concerns and explain the new working environment. Throughout the week, managers will check in with employees and continue to answer any questions. 

Ford has been polling its entire workforce weekly to gauge how employees feel about returning to work, said Kiersten Robinson, Ford's chief human resources officer. Last week, 92% of respondents said they felt the company was doing everything it could to make employees feel safe coming to work.

"We're asking each of us to change and unlearn behavior, and that can be really hard," she said. "This is going to be an ongoing, two-way communication."

MaryLisa Poole, 57, of Canton Township, felt depressed at home. So she chose to volunteer at Ford's Rawsonville plant to build ventilators even though she has an autoimmune disease and has several relatives who have contracted COVID-19.

MaryLisa Poole prepares ventilator parts at her work station at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

She recalled how her nerves brought her to tears during the two hours ahead of her first shift. But the safety briefing eased her mind: "I calmed down greatly."

Her colleagues say the rank-and-file have been quick to adapt to the new protocols. There have been questions, but no resistance to complying.

"Everyone has actually said, 'This is a great idea.' The face masks and (safety) glasses — it comforts people," said Stephon Robinson, 22, who normally builds batteries at Rawsonville and volunteered to lead a team on the ventilator production line after one of his friends contracted COVID-19. "If we stick to how we are right now, we'll be good" come Monday, when auto production restarts at the plant.

Kyle Lenart, who works at Rawsonville, has explained the protocols to family members, some of whom are autoworkers themselves. Doing so has put them at ease about his decision to volunteer during the shutdown.

"I said, 'Hey, I feel safer at work than out in the general public,'" he said. "It was scary at first, a big emotional impact. And then it was OK."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.