U.S. auto industry returns to life after lockdown

DETROIT — The Detroit 3 automakers and their suppliers began restarting assembly lines on Monday after a two-month coronavirus lockdown in a slow revival of a sector that employs nearly 1 million people in the United States.

On a chilly and damp Monday morning, hundreds of workers at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ truck plant in Warren, Mich., began lining up before 4 a.m. to start the 5 a.m. shift. Signs overhead read: “Let’s restart.”

“I’m a little nervous,” said Larry Smith, 53, of New Baltimore, who works on wheel alignment away from the assembly line. “They made all the precautions (and) they’ve done everything they can to prepare us … I’m trusting in God.”

Detroit automakers on Monday said there were no issues with absenteeism as the plants opened. A UAW spokesman said staffing levels were “at or above expectations.”

FCA reopened four U.S. assembly plants on Monday, including Warren Truck, on a single shift, as well as four parts plants.

The reopening of car plants will be a closely watched test of whether workers across a range of U.S. industries can return to factories in large numbers without a resurgence of infections.

General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and FCA have all been preparing for weeks to reopen their North American factories in a push to restart work in an industry that accounts for about 6 percent of U.S. economic activity.

Auto companies have redesigned assembly lines and retrained workers in an effort to avoid coronavirus outbreaks that could derail production again.

Workers entering factories on Monday were checked by temperature monitors. Face masks or shields are standard protective equipment. Jobs such as installing seat belts that used to require two or more workers to get close together inside a vehicle have been redesigned to keep people a safe distance apart.

Plastic screens have been installed along assembly lines to separate workers leaning in to the engine compartments of vehicles. Break areas have been reconfigured to keep workers six feet apart.

The Detroit automakers have collaborated with each other and with the UAW to develop common coronavirus safety practices. Other automakers in the United States are adopting similar safety measures.

Wearing a black Detroit vs Everybody face mask as he entered FCA’s Warren Truck plant early Monday, production operator Laruante Gary, a Detroit resident who installs doors on Ram pickups, said, “I expect to see things cleaned and safety protocols being observed, and I expect us to know something as far as the next steps for us.”

Another production worker at the plant, Sean Reid, 37, of Belleville, expressed concern over the earlier virus-related deaths of several U.S. auto workers, including one at Warren Truck.

“I don’t know where people have been, I don’t know what they’ve been doing,” he said. “I don’t like it, but what can I do, really?”

The Detroit automakers have many older workers in states such as Michigan that were hit hard by the pandemic.

Theresa Segura, 61, arrived for work at the FCA Warren plant on Monday but was immediately sent home after noting on an FCA questionnaire that she had been exposed to a family member who had just tested positive for the virus.

Segura, who has worked at the truck plant since 1993, said she thought that it was in any case too soon to reopen “because there are still people sick out there.”

“We’re risking our lives going in there,” said Segura, who works as a “floater,” moving from job to job at the plant as needed.

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