Ford Motor on Thursday outlined the safety measures it will institute to resume its most profitable U.S. plants during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, expanding on similar efforts by General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to convince leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to send members back to work.
The UAW has until now not agreed to support resuming U.S. auto plants, even as employees in Europe and Asia are getting back to their jobs. Virtually all U.S. automotive production ground to a stop in March as the number of COVID-19 infections increased rapidly.
Billions of dollars in revenue and profits are riding on how soon Ford and its U.S. competitors can convince the UAW and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer that it would be fine to return to work. The UAW declared that early May was too soon to resume, and since then has not agreed to a date.
Without Michigan, the automakers operating in the United States cannot build automobiles. Ford executives highlighted that the U.S. auto sector accounts for 6% of the country’s economic output.
Ford has the largest unionized workforce in the country with about 56,000 UAW members. The F-series pickup trucks UAW members build account for $50 billion in annual revenue, Ford stated.
“It’s just really now getting the clarity from our government leaders because we’re ready,” Ford Chief Operating Officer Jim Farley stated during a conference call.
Farley said he would be indeed comfortable having his family work in a Ford plant given the steps the company has taken to make sure there is safety for employees.
UAW President Rory Gamble said the union is negotiating with the Detroit automakers about safely reopening their U.S. plants. Among the issues on the table are what types of protective gear workers should have, how fast assembly lines should move and how much testing should be done.
“The UAW is asking for as much testing as is possible to prevent exposure to the virus,” Gamble said in a Thursday statement.
Ford’s human resources chief Kiersten Robinson said the automaker will not have a “reliable and scalable testing solution” for COVID-19 coronavirus for several weeks if not months and the automaker was forming a task force to see how it can move quickly to achieve that.
“Longer term, we think it will be critical,” she stated. “Hopefully, in coming weeks or months, it will be part of our protocol.”
Ford manufacturing chief Gary Johnson said any employee who worried they had been exposed would be sent to a healthcare center for testing and the UAW had agreed to that process.
Johnson stated the company was not preparing to provide workers with N95 respiratory masks, which are designed to filter 95% of airborne particles, as the regular face masks and shields were helpful enough.
He said that reducing the speed of production lines in plants would be too complex. Some union leaders have suggested lines could be slowed to permit a greater physical separation between employees.
About 1,112,603 people in the US have been confirmed as being infected with the coronavirus. The virus has killed 64,603 people in the country.