Auto Makers Grapple With Worker No-Shows as Covid-19 Cases Surge

General Motors Co. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F) are continuing to struggle with keeping workers on the job as coronavirus cases surge nationwide, forcing the auto-making giants to cut shifts, hire new workers and transfer others to fill vacant roles.

The absences are hampering efforts to recover from the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic and return to normal production levels after a nearly two-month shutdown this spring.

A GM assembly plant in Wentzville, Mo., that has been running three shifts to restock the company's depleted supply of midsize pickups is cutting one of the shifts to better cope with worker absences, the company said.

The plant, normally staffed with around 3,800 hourly workers split across the three shifts, will temporarily eliminate the third one next week. Instead, the company will try to use workers from that shift to fill absences along the assembly line in the first two, the company said.

"In the short term, a two shift operating plan will allow us to operate as efficiently as possible and accommodate team members who are not reporting to work due to concerns about Covid-19," a company spokesman said in an email, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Ford also has been contending with an increase in absences among the 12,500 or so hourly workers split across its two assembly plants in Louisville, Ky., according to the company.

The auto industry is among several sectors, from retailers to meatpacking plants, confronted by staffing shortfalls as positive cases and safety concerns keep workers home. Companies invested in safety measures to get production back to normal levels only to be met by new waves of cases that threaten to set those efforts back.

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in parts of the U.S. and abroad have led to delays and even rollbacks of reopening plans. Authorities in California on Monday ordered an immediate halt to indoor activities in restaurants, bars, museums, zoos and movie theaters. Also Monday, Walt Disney Co. said it would again close the Hong Kong Disneyland theme park, less than a month after it reopened, after a new surge of coronavirus cases struck the city.

In Louisville, rather than cut shifts, Ford has hired more than 1,000 new temporary workers since May across the two plants, according to Todd Dunn, president of the local United Auto Workers chapter representing the employees at the plants.

The new employees have been crucial to keeping up output, said Mr. Dunn. "We would definitely have lost production, period," he said.

Ford confirmed it has hired more workers to keep production levels at or near full capacity, a spokeswoman said.

The UAW is monitoring the situation and working with the companies to deal with the rise in absences while protecting members' health and safety, a spokesman said.

Workers at the GM plant said that each of its three shifts have been running with absences in the hundreds, curtailing production of trucks and vans.

St. Charles County, where the plant is located, has seen a jump in new confirmed cases of Covid-19 over the past few weeks amid a broader surge in parts of the country, according to data from the U.S. Covid Atlas, a coronavirus- surveillance effort run by researchers at several institutions.

Around two dozen people working in the GM plant have tested positive for the virus since the plant restarted in May, union officials said.

In March, GM, Ford and other auto makers halted nearly all their U.S. production amid rising case counts and orders from local governments to curb nonessential economic activity. During a stoppage that lasted nearly two months, auto makers developed new safety protocols and worked with the UAW on how to manage the pandemic in the plants.

Since coming back online in mid-May, plants have struggled with supply-chain disruptions, temporary shutdowns caused by new positive cases and worker absences. At some plants, workers have requested the plants be closed after positive cases.

Keeping the plants staffed and running has been a challenge, Mr. Dunn said. "When they said it was a pandemic, it sure as hell didn't sound like it was going to be easy," he said. "It's just really severe working conditions."

  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  07-14-20 1414ET
  Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

News, commentary and research reports are from third-party sources unaffiliated with Fidelity. Fidelity does not endorse or adopt their content. Fidelity makes no guarantees that information supplied is accurate, complete, or timely, and does not provide any warranties regarding results obtained from their use.