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Ford says positive COVID-19 tests among some employees haven't triggered outbreaks in plants.

New COVID-19 Surge Pressures Auto Production

Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota all report varying degrees of increased absenteeism connected to the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. But they have not directly tied any cases to outbreaks in their manufacturing plants.

As another COVID-19 wave rampages across the U.S., automotive production is under renewed pressure from the rising number of illnesses among employees.

Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota all report varying degrees of increased absenteeism connected to the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. But they have not directly tied any cases to outbreaks in their manufacturing plants, while insisting they are maintaining safety protocols that call for masks and social distancing whenever possible on the shop floor.

“Our plants are a reflection of the communities in which they are located,” Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker says in an email. “While we are aware of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, no one identified as a close contact in the workplace who was following our protocols has developed symptoms or tested positive for the virus.”

Jodi Tinson, an FCA spokeswoman, tells Wards in an email: “There has been an uptick in cases in communities around the country, including those where our plants are located and our employees live.

“We continue to have a comprehensive, multilayered program of health and safety measures in place at all of our plants (below). We know that the protocols and processes that have been implemented are preventing the spread of the virus when employees are at work,” she says.

Tinson says FCA continues to be aggressive in following protocols for contact tracing, which has indicated infected employees are being exposed outside the plants.

“We continue to encourage our employees to follow the same health and safety measures whenever they are out and about to protect the safe environment we have created inside our plants,” she says.

Under guidelines put in place last spring after consultation with the UAW, employees are not penalized for missing work. “You don’t want people coming to work if they’re sick,” says a union official familiar with the discussions.

General Motors spokesman David Barnas says the automaker’s “multilayered approach to COVID-19 safety” has proved effective in preventing the spread of the disease across all GM facilities.

“We have literally worked hundreds of millions of hours using the safety protocols, and where our protocols are followed, they are working,” he says in an email. “We actually believe our people are safer when they’re at work following the protocols. We are taking additional steps to keep people safe during the cold and flu season and beyond, including offering flu shots.”

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However, GM remains vulnerable if the pandemic extends to suppliers, Barnas acknowledges. “Our supply chain, manufacturing and engineering teams are working closely with our supply base to mitigate any impacts on production, including with suppliers based in Mexico,” he says. Supplier issues briefly put a crimp in Chevrolet Corvette output at Bowling Green, KY, and in overtime at the Arlington, TX, SUV plant, but production is continuing, Barnas says.

Toyota is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the communities where it operates, says Kelly McNeff, vice president-manufacturing communications for Toyota Motor North America. “At this time, there has not been a surge at any one specific Toyota manufacturing location. However, we are seeing increases in cases amongst our employees across the country,” she says in an email, adding the company is maintaining a full array of safety procedures in its plants.

Meanwhile, UAW President Rory Gamble says in a message to hourly employees of the Detroit Three automakers that they must remain vigilant.

I know it can be very difficult, but we cannot waver in the face of this virus,” he says. “In the past month, we have seen an alarming increase in cases across the nation. Cases in the U.S. continue to reach new heights, with numbers up 34% since early November. In Michigan, experts are predicting if hospitalizations continue at the current level, we will surpass our spring peak in 10 days. We are also seeing ICU cases continue to rise across the state.”

Gamble says the UAW continues to work with automakers to implement aggressive contact tracing to identify any situations that may spread the virus.

“Our contact tracing with members who report positive cases has not indicated to date widespread infection spreading in the workplace,” he says. “Rather, the research has traced the origin of infection to contact outside of the plants.

“I know these restrictions are especially difficult as we head into the holidays, but they are the only way to get this pandemic under control and save lives.”

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