Automakers tell non-factory employees to work remote to avoid coronavirus spread

Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler have started telling non-factory employees to work remotely in order to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus, as the world comes to grips with a growing pandemic. Factory workers at plants in the US, however, are being told to remain in place — despite the United Auto Workers union announcing Thursday that a Fiat Chrysler employee at the company’s Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The push to have employees work remotely follows the lead of companies in tech and other industries that have been temporarily closing offices around the world. But the pressure could build to idle factories as the virus continues to spread and as disruptions of the supply chain in China continue to ripple outward.

In fact, those factors are already having an impact in other countries. Work stopped at a Fiat Chrysler minivan factory in Canada on Thursday after the union there worried the coronavirus may have made it into the workforce. And Renault has idled two plants in Spain due to a shortage of components.

In the meantime, Ford said Friday that it’s telling much of its global workforce to work remotely starting March 16th until further notice — “except those in business-critical roles that cannot be done away from Ford facilities.” Any employee who feels like they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 — which can be as mild as those of a cold, or more serious, like the fever of a flu — are being instructed to seek medical attention.

In a letter to employees, Ford CEO Jim Hackett said employees in North America, South America, and Europe are being asked to work remotely, with the exceptions being workers who can’t do their jobs outside of Ford locations (like factories) or ones who are in “business-critical” roles. He also said company supervisors have been instructed to close any facility that’s been exposed to a confirmed coronavirus case for “at least 24 hours so the building can be disinfected.”

Ford workers who have the coronavirus will be instructed to self-quarantine at home and to “continue to get medical attention until cleared to return to work by a physician.” Supervisors have also been instructed to identify anyone who’s come in direct contact with a co-worker who has the coronavirus, and to have them self-quarantine for 14 days as well as seek medical attention.

Ford supervisors were also told to have anyone leave work and get medical advice if they had “close contact” with the people who had direct contact with a confirmed case. But those people will be allowed to return to work after that.

Fiat Chrysler, meanwhile, said it is changing some “production techniques” at several of its manufacturing plants in order to create more space between employees. “Across all our facilities we are stepping up cleaning, sanitization and the availability of masks where deemed necessary,” CEO Mike Manley said in an email to employees.

Manley said Fiat Chrysler is also “accelerating the deployment of working remotely” on a department-by-department basis, and asked employees to coordinate with their “local HR representative.” At company offices in hard-hit areas like China, Korea, Japan, and Italy, he wrote “this practice has become the ‘new normal.’”

General Motors is also asking all employees and contractors to work remotely “if [their] work allows it,” according to an email from CEO Mary Barra. (Contract workers are being told to ask their employers for “further direction,” though.) Barra also said the company is adjusting work schedules in its manufacturing, product development, customer care and after-sales divisions to allow for additional cleaning.

Barra also said she sees a business opportunity amid the pandemic. “Given the current drop in use of public transportation and extensive flight cancellations, our customers are looking to us more than ever to ensure they have the vehicles, parts and services they need,” she wrote.

GM also said that it will provide paid leave for all salaried and hourly employees, including its unionized workers. The United Auto Workers is also negotiating to get paid leave approved for Fiat Chrysler employees.

Tesla, which operates three big factories in the United States (in California, Nevada, and New York) did not respond to a request for comment. But the company told its employees to self-quarantine if they’ve recently traveled to Italy, China, South Korea, Iran, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, according to a leaked memo obtained by Business Insider. The company has also told employees who feel sick or believe they’ve been in contact with someone who has coronavirus to “inform their manager, go home, call a doctor, and email Tesla security to let them know what is going on.”

“Our onsight clinics are not equipped to handle COVID-19,” the Tesla memo said.

Foreign automakers who operate plants in the US are continuing to keep those factories running for now.

At Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the company said it is “adhering to all regulations and guidelines from government authorities related to COVID-19,” and “taking proactive measures to ensure the health and safety of our team members across the country,” though it did not detail those measures.

Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler said of its two US factories that it “established recommendations and precautions to be followed whenever epidemics or pandemics occur anywhere in the world,” and that “[t]his procedure is continuously being adapted, updated and specified” based on the “latest advice and information issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions.” The company did not elaborate on what exactly that means.

Nissan, which also operates two factories in the US, said that employees who feel symptoms should notify their health care provider and not come to work. Employees who test positive for COVID-19 “should not come to work or will be sent home, as applicable,” the company told The Verge. “The health department and Center for Disease Control will drive next steps.”

Toyota, which has four factories in the US, offered similar guidance.

Honda, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, and Volvo, which all also operate factories in the US, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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