How GM, other automakers plan to reopen US plants during coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Automakers expected to implement new safety protocols to restart U.S. production 
  • GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are negotiating with the UAW about reopening facilities.
  • At least 27 UAW members working for the Detroit automakers have died due to Covid-19.
Workers stand several feet apart and individually exit General Motors' plant near Detroit. Marks on the ground identify how far employees should be apart.
Michael Wayland | CNBC

WARREN, Mich. – Walking into an auto parts plant in suburban Detroit, General Motors employees are instructed to stand at least six feet apart and go through a health screening that includes a temperature check. They also sanitize their hands and put on a face mask and safety glasses.

Exiting the facility, it's much of the same. The roughly 140 employees currently working at the plant to produce medical face masks during the coronavirus pandemic stand on marked spots for social distancing as they check out and leave the plant.

It's a far different process than how the former transmission facility, which GM decommissioned last year, used to operate with hundreds of employees freely entering and exiting the facility all at once.

"It is very different times," Gerald Johnson, GM executive vice president of Global Manufacturing, told CNBC following a tour of the operations Thursday. He said the protocols as well as available Covid-19 test kits at all GM plants when it eventually restarts its U.S. operations.

Here's an inside look at General Motors' coronavirus face mask plant
Here's an inside look at General Motors' coronavirus face mask plant

Such practices are expected to become common practice as automakers attempt to reopen factories – most of which were shut down in mid-March due to Covid-19 – without spreading the disease.

Jose Munoz, CEO of Hyundai Motor North America, recently told CNBC that testing is overall critical to curving the pandemic. The automaker earlier this month donated 65,000 tests to hospitals in the U.S.

"The key to control the pandemic, not only through the pandemic time but also after, it is testing," he said last week during "Closing Bell."

Hyundai expects to begin restarting production at its plant in Alabama on May 4. The company, according to a spokesman, does not have Covid-19 tests planned for employee use. The South Korean automaker, he said, does plan to take body temperatures of employees entering the plant. Hyundai, like other automakers, also is changing procedures to allow for social distancing and implementing extensive sanitation measures.

Hyundai North America CEO on donating virus tests
Hyundai North America CEO on donating virus tests

Toyota Motor, Honda Motor and Volkswagen are among other major automakers that have confirmed plans to restart production in early-May. However, those plans have been delayed several times.

The precautions add to an already complex task for automakers. They also must get clearance from state governments, make sure their suppliers can produce needed parts and, in the case of the Detroit automakers, convince the United Auto Workers union that it's safe to return.

UAW opposition

GM and Ford Motor are among the only major automakers that have yet to announce a time frame to restart production. Fiat Chrysler earlier this month announced plans to restart production on May 4.

UAW President Rory Gamble on Thursday said that the union believes restarting production in early-May is "too soon and too risky" for its members.

"At this point in time, the UAW does not believe the scientific data is conclusive that it is safe to have our members back in the workplace," he said in a statement. "We have not done enough testing to really understand the threat our members face."

United Auto Workers (UAW) acting president Rory Gamble speaks to Reuters from his office in Southfield, Michigan, November 6, 2019.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

At least 27 UAW members working for the Detroit automakers have been confirmed to have died due to Covid-19 since late-March, according to the union. Details of how they contracted the virus are unknown. The Detroit automakers employ about 150,000 UAW members.

Gamble's statement came a day after discussions took place between Gamble and GM and Chairman CEO Mary Barra, Ford CEO and President Jim Hackett and Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley about reopening plants.

Fiat Chrysler, in an emailed response to the comments, said the company continues to "make the health and well-being of its employees a top priority." The company has not publicly changed its start date.

Processes being discussed with each of the automakers, according to the UAW, include following CDC and World Health Organization protocols as well as enhanced protections that will "ensure confidence of members working in a comfortable and safe environment."

Ford, at its U.S. facilities currently producing personal protection equipment, is utilizing an online system to ask employees if they're symptomatic each day or if they have been in contact with someone that was diagnosed with Covid-19. If so, they are not allowed to come to work.

Ford also uses thermal scanners, face masks and social distancing guidelines at the facilities, including entering and exiting the locations.

'Mass testing impractical' 

GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler have been preparing to restart U.S. production. That includes talking with their suppliers, changing work processes to allow for proper social distancing and obtaining or producing needed supplies. The closures are costing the companies billions by the week in lost production.

"In terms of our readiness, and that's the key thing, we're doing everything to make sure that we're ready whenever the time is right to restart," Johnson said.

The entrance of the decommissioned plant where General Motors is producing medical face masks in Michigan displays coronavirus safety procedures next to a table with hand sanitizer, masks and safety glasses.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

Some GM workers have remained at facilities maintaining, updating or installing new equipment since the plants shutdown, according to Johnson. The company also is producing face masks and hand sanitizer for internal use once operations resume.

Regarding testing, Johnson said GM will only test employees with symptoms or have valid concerns that they have contracted the disease.

"Mass testing is impractical," he said. "It's not even the smart thing to do." The company, he said, has relationships with LabCorp and Sonic Healthcare for 48-hour or less testing.

The United Auto Workers has cited testing and data as important factors in its members returning to work. There have been different discussions about what that would entail and whether mass testing would be available and appropriate, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

Fiat Chrysler declined to comment on whether or not they expect to have Covid-19 testing available.

Ford as of Friday did not have plans to utilize test kits at plants. Any employees experiencing symptoms would be asked to independently get checked by a physician. 

China as a guide

The protocols planned for U.S. plants are similar to those already in place in China, where the coronavirus pandemic and a government shutdown halted production for several weeks or months and automakers gradually restarted operations.

"We think a limited-phase restart is the right approach," Johnson said. "People will have to adapt to new protocols, people will have to become comfortable with them. Of course, we will be metered by demand as well."

General Motors has implemented body temperature scans as part of its new processes for employees producing face masks at an auto parts plant in suburban Detroit.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

GM, according to Johnson, recently reopened its last of 15 China-based assembly plants that had been down since January. 

Fiat Chrysler also has said the company implemented such protocols in China to "gradually and safely return" to work white-collar and blue-collar employees. They including redesigning work stations to maintain proper social distancing and expanding cleaning protocols at all of its locations.

"As a result of these actions, we will only restart operations with safe, secure and sanitized workplaces to protect all of our employees," the company said in an emailed statement.

Spokespeople for both Ford and Fiat Chrysler said the companies continue to evaluate best practices from their plants in China and elsewhere for protocols to implement at U.S. facilities.