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Is early May a safe time to go back to work amid an unpredictable coronavirus pandemic? The United Auto Workers union doesn’t think so.

“Too risky,” says President Rory Gamble. “The UAW does not believe the scientific data is conclusive that it is safe to have our members back in the workplace.”

Auto Production Shut Downs

The U.S. auto industry shut down manufacturing operations on March 18 at the urging of the union. The initial hope was to reopen factories in 10 days or so. Since then, the focus has broadened from sanitizing the workplace to also making sure employees don’t inadvertently infect each other in spite of their pristine surroundings.

face mask production

Face mask production at a Ford plant in Michigan (Image: Ford)

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hopes to resume operations at several U.S. plants on May 4. Ford and General Motors are pondering when to push the button, and neither has announced a specific date to take that step.

Companies give the impression that they have figured out how to safely restart their factories. They all cite variations of the same procedures: reconfigure workplaces, install barriers, issue face masks and safety gloves, check body temperatures, stagger shift changes to minimize crowds, frequently sanitize work and break areas and require workers to wash their hands several times per day.

A New Normal for Plants

Many carmakers and suppliers have been able to try out these procedures. They are doing it now with the volunteers who have returned to a handful of facilities to help make face shields, face masks, respirators and ventilators for use by healthcare professionals.

Companies also have developed training programs to explain to hourly and salaried employees how they can keep themselves healthy. In the end, the effectiveness of these routines in plants and offices will depend on the willingness of everyone to take the protocols seriously and accept what will be a very different approach to working together.

Slow and Easy?

Carmakers point out that reopening a factory is pointless unless the facility’s supply chain is ready to go. Likewise, production levels will depend on how quickly consumers turn into car buyers again.

It seems likely that, whenever manufacturing does gear up again, it will take time to get back to sustained, pre-pandemic production levels.