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Detroit carmakers send office workers home but keep factories running

U.S. factory activity slows to six-month low, survey finds
A Chrysler transmission factory in Kokomo, Ind., is continuing to operate despite a worker there testing positive for COVID-19.
(Daniel Acker / Bloomberg)

Detroit’s three automakers are asking office employees to work remotely while pushing production staff to keep running many of their factories — including one where a worker tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Fiat Chrysler’s salaried personnel, including 14,000 at its U.S. headquarters north of Detroit, were told to work from home as of Thursday, a spokesman said. A transmission factory in Indiana is continuing to operate despite a worker there testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. followed suit Friday, ordering office personnel to work remotely. The companies continue to build vehicles despite analysts’ warnings that the virus will significantly curtail demand for their products around the globe. In China, where the illness originated, car sales plunged a record 79% in February.

“Clearly we are now moving beyond regional hot spots and into planning for how this will impact every area of our business across the world,” Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Mike Manley wrote in a letter to employees Friday. “We are now managing the company to ensure business continuity, in particular focusing on how we keep production lines running and vehicle programs on track.”

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Fiat Chrysler temporarily shut plants in Italy for cleaning as it tries to help combat the spread of the virus in the country, where more than 1,000 have died.

In Canada, employees at the company’s minivan assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario, have refused to work since midafternoon Thursday after a fellow worker who had possible secondary contact with someone with the virus went into self-quarantine. There are no confirmed cases at the facility.

In the U.S., the Fiat Chrysler worker in Indiana who tested positive is receiving medical care, and those who worked nearby or may have come in contact with him have been put in home quarantine.

Fiat Chrysler on Friday declined to provide the worker’s name, age or other personal information such as his recent travel history, citing privacy reasons. The carmaker has disinfected his work station and is sanitizing the entire plant in Kokomo, Ind., which employs roughly 4,000. Output is running at a normal pace, but the company said it is adjusting break times to avoid crowding and adjusting work spaces to allow for adequate social distancing.

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The United Auto Workers is working closely with Fiat Chrysler on measures to protect its members, Cindy Estrada, a vice president of the union, said in a statement. The UAW said it’s in talks with automakers and companies in other sectors regarding paid leave for workers who have not been tested but have to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the virus.

Just last week, Mark Stewart, Fiat Chrysler’s chief operations officer for North America, visited Kokomo to christen a new investment at a separate, idled transmission plant that will be repurposed for engine production. He said the company’s crisis teams were monitoring supply risks and that travel had been curtailed due to the virus, but operations were “progressing OK.”

The company does not foresee any production shutdowns in the U.S., Simon Sproule, its chief communications officer, said Thursday. Ford also doesn’t expect to idle major facilities, according to Mark Truby, the company’s top spokesman.

A day after Michigan announced its first coronavirus cases, Fiat Chrysler said it would limit in-person meetings, rely on video conferencing and refuse visitors from countries with acute COVID-19 outbreaks.

The company said Wednesday it may have to close some parts factories in northern Italy to support a nationwide campaign to contain the virus. It’s slowing production at some plants there to enable greater spacing between workers.

Fiat Chrysler’s instructions for salaried employees to work from home will vary by department, and remain in effect until further notice, the company said.


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