IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Automaker employees who work shoulder to shoulder say plants should have closed earlier

“They shut down their headquarters and sent salaried people to work from home. It was a kind of a slap in the face for us hourly people," said one auto manufacturing worker.
Image: A Cadillac DTS sedan makes its way down the assembly line at the General Motors Co. Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Detroit, Michigan.
Some assembly line workers stressed frustration, if not outright anger, that the automakers took so long to close their plants.Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg / Getty Images file

While Detroit's "Big Three" have all suspended North American production until at least Monday, some workers have expressed frustration, if not outright anger, that the automakers took so long to close their plants.

"Most of us on the line were terrified, putting on extra gloves, trying to cover up as much as we could, even bringing in Lysol from our homes to clean up our stations," Marie, an employee at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, said about working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles all announced last week that they would be closing plants across North America because of concerns about the coronavirus. GM said it would be closing all North American factories at least until March 30, with a weekly re-evaluation afterward. Fiat Chrysler said it would progressively shutter plants "through the end of March."

Ford, which originally said it would be closing plants through March 30, announced Tuesday that the shutdown would continue past that date, saying: "Ford's top priority is the health and safety of our employees, dealers, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. In light of various governments' orders to stay and work from home, Ford is not planning to restart our plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico on Monday, March 30 as originally hoped."

The shutdowns affect about 150,000 union workers, according to the United Auto Workers union. GM has 11 factories, Ford has eight, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has six.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

As did most of the employees who spoke to NBC News, Marie asked not to be identified by her full name, fearing reprisal for going public. A Fiat Chrysler worker at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has died from COVID-19, and several other employees at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler have tested positive.

NBC News spoke to workers from all three manufacturers, and the common thread was a fear about becoming infected at work. They also all expressed frustration, if not outright anger, that the automakers took so long to close their plants.

"UAW members, their families and our communities will benefit from today's announcement with the certainty that we are doing all that we can to protect our health and safety during this pandemic," UAW President Rory Gamble said Wednesday. "This will give us time to review best practices and to prevent the spread of this disease."

April Bau Ocha, a 21-year industry veteran who works building F-150 pickups on Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant line in Claycomo, Missouri, said: "They shut down world headquarters and sent salaried people to work from home. It was a kind of a slap in the face for us hourly people that they didn't care enough about us."

Ford sent contractors and non-manufacturing workers home two days before it announced that it would be closing plants.

Ocha suggested that if anything, employees at automotive manufacturing sites face far more risk than those sitting at office desks, where it should be possible to socially distance the requisite 6 feet or more.

"When you're in these kinds of places, you're an arm's length away from other people, and there are thousands of people in the plant. We're our own small city, and we're on top of each other," Ocha said, adding: "It's impossible to have a safe distance from other people."

Despite the shutdowns, all three companies will still require some hourly employees, such as electricians and plumbers, to remain on site for maintenance and repair work. Sanitation crews will also remain on the job to fully disinfect potential contamination sites.

Among the workers who spoke to NBC News, the issue of cleanliness came up frequently. A worker at a big Detroit-area assembly plant spoke of a lack of hand sanitizers and even soap, hot water and paper towels in the days leading up to the shutdown.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

Asked about such conditions, all three automakers said they had taken steps to ensure worker safety at their facilities.

GM said it had taken steps before plants were closed to "ensure health and safety," according to a statement. That included restrictions on access to the plants by outsiders, "redeploying cleaning crews and sanitation supplies, changing policies in cafeterias and implementing safety protocols for those who might be sick."

Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said in a statement, "We will continue to do what is right for our people through this period of uncertainty ... to ensure employees feel safe at work and that we are taking every step possible to protect them."

A spokesperson for Ford told NBC News on Tuesday, "We are closely monitoring and following health and wellness guidance from global and national health experts." The spokesperson said the company has provided additional hand sanitizer and wipes, stepped up the frequency of its cleaning and "encouraged" social distancing.