Automakers send office workers home to prevent COVID-19 spread
General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra addresses the gathering at the Grand Opening of GM World Wednesday, January 17, 2018, in in the center of GM Global Headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan. GM is encouraging all employees who can work from home to do so to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
(Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Automakers send office workers home to prevent COVID-19 spread

Ford, GM, FCA, Nissan impose work from home policies, Hyundai, Toyota limiting travel. Detroit automakers, UAW set up best practices task force.


Cleveland, Ohio – You can’t make a car from home, but you can do a lot design, marketing, and management away from the office, so all of Detroit’s major automakers are urging people who can work from home to do so.

“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,” General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in a letter to employees. “It also helps conserve critical resources like cleaning crews, medical staff, and supplies so they can be deployed where they are most needed.”

Ford also encouraged employees, except for those in business-critical roles who cannot work remotely, to avoid the office to avoid spreading the novel corona virus causes the COVID-19 illness. At Nissan, work from home for those who are able is mandatory.

Automakers have been dealing with the growing virus threat since January in their Chinese operations but had been taking a wait-and-see approach in North America. At Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), executives in Italy have been urged since February to work from home when possible. Italy has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in Europe, and the disease has been deadlier there than in China where it began.

FCA officials have since rolled out their Smart Working initiative globally, allowing employees worldwide to work from home when possible. One worker at FCA's Kokomo, Indiana, transmission plant tested positive for COVID-19, so that person and others working in the same area are under self quarantine.

Sending potentially healthy workers home creates a potential conflict with the United Auto Workers, so the union and the automaker had been working out pay and benefits rules for such situations for about a week.

Sunday evening, the UAW, Ford, GM, and FCA announced plans to form a joint task force to determine best practices for maintaining safe work environments at automotive plants.

UAW President Rory Gamble, GM's Barra, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett, and FCA CEO Michael Manley will lead the task force, supported by the UAW lead negotiators for each automaker, medical staff, and plant manufacturing and labor leaders.

“Workplace health and safety is a priority for us every day, all three companies have been taking steps to keep the COVID-19/coronavirus out of their facilities and during this national emergency, we will do even more working together,” Gamble said. “We are focused on doing the right thing for our people, their families, our communities, and the country. All options related to protecting against exposure to the virus are on the table.”

At Toyota and Hyundai, executives have not urged office workers to avoid facilities, but they have taken steps to limit exposure to the virus. Both automakers have suspended travel outside of North America and limited visitor access to facilities.

At Honda facilities, company officials say they are screening visitors. The automaker is also increased the frequency of cleanings and is encouraging employees to monitor their health – steps recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that the other manufacturers also say they're following.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced temporary plant closures in China, South Korea, and Italy, but none so far in North America. In the U.S., industry disruptions have mainly been the vehicle marketing – delay of the New York auto show, moving vehicle unveiling events online – not manufacturing.

While disruptive, GM’s Barra said the industry has dealt with worse and will get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I understand how uncertain these times feel. For many of us, it’s our first experience of this type,” Barra said. “But disruption and trying circumstances are not new to us. Especially in times like these, we demonstrate our flexibility, agility and resilience. This team always rises to the occasion, and just as we have in the past, we will chart our course.”

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and Today's eMobility and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 19 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.