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Detroit carmakers will close plants due to coronavirus concerns

Breana Noble and Kalea Hall, The Detroit News – March 18, 2020

Detroit — Ford Motor Co. will close all of its plants in North America starting Thursday evening through March 30, the Detroit automaker said Wednesday.

All of Detroit's three automakers have agreed to close plants due to worker fears about the coronavirus, according to two sources familiar with the talks. It wasn't immediately clear how long plants would be closed or the number of them.

"We're continuing to work closely with union leaders, especially the United Auto Workers, to find ways to help keep our workforce healthy and safe – even as we look at solutions for continuing to provide the vehicles customers really want and need, Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America, said in a statement. "In these unprecedented times, we’re exploring unique and creative solutions to support our workforce, customers, dealers, suppliers and communities."

UAW and Ford leaders say they will work together on how to best structure plant restart plans.

"Today's action is the prudent thing to do. By taking a shutdown and working through next steps, we protect UAW members, their families and the community," said Rory Gamble, president of the UAW. "We have time to review best practices when the plants reopen, and we prevent the possible spread of this pandemic. We commend Ford for working with us and taking this bold step."

The other automakers are expected to release details of their closures later Wednesday. The United Auto Workers union has been pushing for factories to close because workers are fearful of coming into contact with the virus.

The Detroit automakers' decision to close plants comes after Honda Motor Co. said Wednesday it would suspend production at its plants in North America for six days beginning Monday, with current plans to return to production on March 31. Honda has U.S. plants in Ohio, Indiana and Alabama. The 27,600 Honda workers affected by this will continue to receive full pay. The company says it will use the down-time to continue deep-cleaning of its production facilities and common areas.

Multiple Michigan auto assembly plants shut down Wednesday amid positive cases of coronavirus among workers and just one day after rejecting union calls for broader two-week plant closures.

Ford on Wednesday temporarily closed its Michigan Assembly Plant final-assembly building in Wayne, Michigan building after one of the employees there tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Stamping and the body shop operations are still running, Ford said.

Michigan Assembly employs about 3,000 workers who make the Ford Ranger pickup truck; about 2,800 of those are hourly employees. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles earlier Wednesday suspended production at its Sterling Heights Assembly Plant a second time in less than 12 hours after an employee there tested positive for coronavirus.

The shutdowns came after a task force made of officials with the United Auto Workers and Detroit's three automakers met into the evening Tuesday about how to continue production amid the pandemic. Although the UAW earlier this week had pushed for a two-week shutdown, the group agreed the companies would schedule rotation shifts that would partially close plants and allow for greater space between workers.

FCA sent home the first shift at Sterling Heights and directed the second shift to not show up for work at the plant that produces the Ram 1500 pickup trucks. Fiat Chrysler also had shut down the plant the evening prior, Tinson confirmed.

"Out of an abundance of caution for the health and welfare of the employees at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, FCA is suspending production on Wednesday," company spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement. "The company is working to align the plant’s shift pattern with yesterday's announced agreement with the UAW."

"Employees did not walk out," she added, following some reports that they had. "They were released so the plant could be deep cleaned." The sick hourly employee at Sterling Heights had not been in the plant for a week, according to Fiat Chrysler, and was receiving medical attention. The company's medical team was contacting colleagues who may have come into contact with the individual and were recommending self-quarantine. The employee's workstation was sanitized.

The case was the second COVID-19 case in one of Fiat Chrysler's plants after a salaried worker in Indiana's Kokomo Transmission Plant tested positive last week.

Autoworkers have contacted media and government officials over their concerns about the cleanliness of the plants and the resources available to ensure their health and safety. Last week, 17 paint shop employees at Fiat Chrysler's Warren Truck plant walked off the job, though operations there resumed shortly thereafter and production was not impeded, according to the company.

While experts say the automakers could make up production volumes from a two-week shutdown, the companies continue to receive orders for new vehicles. That is unlike in Europe, where many dealers' sales operations have closed and demand almost has disappeared. Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler have joined other automakers in shutting down plants there.

A salaried employee at General Motors Co.'s Cole Engineering Center on its Warren Technical Center campus tested positive, the automaker said Tuesday. Co-workers were being contacted about possible exposure. A salaried employee at Ford Motor Co.'s Building 5 in its Dearborn product development campus also tested positive. The individual, however, had been exposed to the virus after leaving the facility and had not returned since, the company said.

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