Ford, GM, and FCA workers return to work as auto sector faces massive test amid COVID-19 pandemic

Autoworkers returned to work Monday as plants building vehicles for General Motors, Ford, and Fiat-Chrysler began the gradual crawl back up to full production.

The restart will happen not with a switch, but with a dial slowly turning up the productivity. As factories began opening at a reduced capacity, workers going to their jobs Monday morning were met with roped off pathways guiding employees through a new safety protocol that includes temperature taking and personal protection equipment distribution. 

"You social distance as you walk into the place, we make sure you sanitize your hands, you put a mask on right away, and that we feel is going to contain all those particles and droplets that come out of your mouth, your nose, when you talk, when you breathe, when you cough - keep it in that mask," Dr. Jeff Hess, GM's chief medical director told FOX 2.

Jobs that required two people will now have to be approached differently. Shifts will restart in stages to reduce potential exposure. Even the lunch breaks will last longer to ensure workers have an opportunity to eat in a healthy environment. But even with the safety measures in place, employees approached their assembly jobs uneasy.

"Why am I scared? Well, I know personally five people who have passed away from this," said one worker heading into the Warren Truck Assembly plant. "Four of them worked here, one worked next door. So we're scared, we're all scared."

Others were eager to begin working again.

"My wife's a nurse, my sons are cops - I'm ready," said another man. "Let's get this done, we got to do it sooner or later."

Sooner or later is the biggest question on the minds of business leaders, policymakers, and the more than 1.3 million workers out of a job in Michigan. The state's chief medical officer, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, has opted for a patient restart, warning that it's imperative the state gets its economic reopening right the first time. After reporting more than 51,000 COVID-19 cases and almost 5,000 deaths linked to the virus, Michigan's health care infrastructure wants to avoid a second surge, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has warned would decimate an already hobbled economy.

Which is why most everyone's eyes are on Detroit's Big Three automakers on Monday as the state holds its breath. The thousands of UAW employees returning to their jobs represent one of the largest returns to work for the state. One week ago, Whitmer officially relaxed rules on manufacturing, which employes more than 600,000 workers in Michigan. 

Suppliers and components plants were the first to restart as they are the first link in the industry's supply chain. On May 18, more than 50 plants around North America will begin producing more vehicles. 

What Ford, General Motors, and Fiat-Chrysler are attempting to do will be a first for all three companies - restarting its entire production line in completely new ways. "The idea of going off was difficult, going on is even more difficult because at the time we turned off, people weren't really sure what the virus was," Ford CEO Jim Hackett told FOX 2 on Friday. 

GM's Hess cited GM's Kokomo plant in Indiana and Warren plant as factories that have already implemented safety measures when its workers went back to the front lines to manufacture ventilators and masks. He also said every one of its facilities will have health centers open to care for any workers.

The three companies also received the blessing from its union representatives over the weekend, which thanked the workers already back on the assembly lines and promised to continue protections for its workers in the future.

"The UAW will continue to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of all members as plants reopen. We will continue to be vigilant in protecting the health and safety of our members, their families, and their communities. And we will continue to advocate for as much testing as possible and full testing as it becomes available,” read a statement.

State health officials are trying to balance economic restarts like Monday's return of the Big 3 while keeping the virus at bay. So far, Michigan's progress in the latter goal has been successful, per the state's reported daily coronavirus count on Sunday when only 11 more people were confirmed dead. As COVID-19's spread has fallen in Michigan, the governor has relaxed rules in different sectors of the economy that are deemed prepared to return to work. Manufacturing was the latest industry to receive the green light to go back to work last Monday.