Windsor FCA workers return as carmakers try keeping plants running during virus crisis

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Production at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Windsor Assembly Plant restarted at 3 p.m. Friday after coming to a standstill a day earlier when employees refused to work because a colleague was in self-quarantine amid the new coronavirus pandemic.

Work resumed at the minivan plant after Dave Cassidy, president of Local 444 for the Unifor Canadian labor union, urged members to stand down. The quarantined employee may have come into contact with an infected individual, but there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the plant, the automaker said.

A Chrysler Pacifica moves on the assembly line at the Windsor Assembly. Production there resumed Friday afternoon after employees on Thursday refused to work after one employee was put in self-quarantine.

"Folks, I know these are scary times but we need to take a breath," Cassidy wrote on Facebook. "We are currently not in a full-blown crisis here."

Vehicle assembly is a hands-on activity with thousands working in the same facility, often in close proximity to each other. Shutting down plants would be costly to automakers, though Ford Motor Co. has indicated it could shut down facilities for a day to clean if an employee there tests positive. General Motors Co. is adjusting production schedules to allow for cleaning.

The work stoppage in Windsor came as the United States and Canada were put on high-alert over preventing the spread. U.S. President Donald Trump called a national state of emergency, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned gatherings of more than 250 people and shut down grade schools into April. The Detroit automakers escalated measures to protect employees, including allowing many to work from home.

Canada's Ministry of Labour on Thursday visited the Windsor plant to investigate and determined the work environment was safe.

Unifor's Cassidy said the union cannot dictate whether Fiat Chrysler closes its doors and that the union "has made it clear with our workplaces that we need to be kept up to date with their plans of actions and precautions they are taking to keep our members safe."

Windsor Assembly builds the Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler Voyager and soon-to-be-discontinued Dodge Grand Caravan minivans. It employs more than 5,800 people, though the automaker is eliminating the 1,500-person third shift this summer. On Thursday, Fiat Chrysler extended the deadline to July 13 from June 29.

A Fiat Chrysler employee at the company's Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week, but production there "continued as normal," company spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said. The employee is the first known person in the United States employed by one of Detroit's three automakers to test positive for COVID-19.

The company has placed into home quarantine the Kokomo employee's immediate co-workers and others in the facility with whom he may have come into direct contact. While the United Auto Workers' contract with the automakers provides some paid sick leave to employees, the union is in discussions with "all sectors" about compensation for employees who cannot work because they are quarantined but not sick and other issues.

"The UAW and FCA are working together during this unprecedented and challenging situation to address issues on a case by case basis," Cindy Estrada, UAW vice president and FCA Department director, said in a statement. "The UAW feels strongly that no member should be disadvantaged in response to the COVID-19 process. Our first priority is to ensure the health and welfare of our members."

FCA's Tinson echoed Estrada's remarks, saying the company is working with the union on "how best to handle a number of issues."

GM and Ford did not have any known coronavirus cases in the United States, representatives said. GM, however, will pay quarantined employees — whether sick or exposed to someone who tests positive — the hours for which they were scheduled, spokesman Jim Cain said. At Ford, it has not been an issue to date, spokesman Mark Truby said Friday on a conference call.

The workspace of the infected FCA employee in Kokomo was sanitized, breaks were rescheduled to avoid crowding and distance was increased between employees, the automaker said. The company has taken similar measures at several plants, CEO Mike Manley wrote Thursday evening in an email to employees. Fiat Chrysler is stepping up cleaning and sanitization at all facilities and providing masks where deemed necessary.

Fiat Chrysler also is "accelerating the deployment of working remotely" that is being rolled out "department-by-department," Manley wrote. The practice already is the "new normal," he said, at offices in China, Korea, Japan and Italy.

GM on Friday followed with CEO Mary Barra sending a message to employees saying starting Monday the Detroit automaker was making a work-from-home allowance "if the nature of your work allows for it." The policy applies globally, though not in China, and will not halt production at GM's manufacturing facilities.

"These are important steps to lower the probability of spreading the coronavirus to coworkers, families and communities and to relieve the burden on public resources," Barra wrote. "It also helps conserve critical resources like cleaning crews, medical staff and supplies so they can be deployed where they are most needed."

GM also is increasing sanitization efforts at its plants and adjusting production schedules to do so. For example, it called off its third shift starting Saturday for the night at its Flint Assembly plant producing heavy-duty Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.

Ford also starting Monday is permitting those who work in jobs that are not "business critical" to work remotely "for the foreseeable future" if they can perform their duties off-site, Truby said. The global policy does not apply to China, "where the conditions there are improving and more in a back-to-work mode." Manufacturing is not expected to be affected.

"Obviously we need to keep our factories moving," Truby said. "That's the goal. We're taking all the precautions we can to do extra sanitization and social distancing where possible."

Ford, however, will "close a specific facility where there was exposure to a confirmed coronavirus case for at least 24 hours so the building can be disinfected," CEO Jim Hackett wrote in a letter to employees.

Truby did not have an immediate figure of how many employees could be working from home, but said it would be "many thousands" and the "vast majority of our white-collar workforce outside of China." Ford also canceled the debut of its highly anticipated off-road Bronco SUV next week.

Fiat Chrysler is postponing or canceling "most company events," including large employee gatherings, auto shows and sponsored commercial events, Manley added.

The automakers have said they are working to ensure a consistent flow of parts and components to continue production. But experts say demand could be the greatest challenge. Auto sales dropped almost 80% year-over-year in February in China because of the virus. There has been some impact on showroom traffic in certain parts of the United States, Ford's Truby said.

Company leaders called on their employees to continue to perform at their best, despite the disruptions.

"Given the current drop in use of public transportation and extensive flight cancellations," GM's Barra wrote, "our customers are looking to us more than ever to ensure they have the vehicles, parts and services they need."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble