First Confirmed Auto Worker COVID-19 Cases Puts Industry Under Pressure

Two auto employees, one from General Motors and one from Ford Motor Co., have sparked worries of coronavirus spread in factories during a period of economic instability.

Updated, 1:32 pm, March 18, 2020: The Big 3 have agreed to temporary closures of all U.S. plants, reports the Detroit Free Press.

Two auto employees, one at General Motors Warren Tech Center and the other an employee at Ford’s Dearborn engineering campus, have tested positive for COVID-19.

The GM case is the first confirmed identification of the virus at a Big Three automotive facility in Michigan (WXYZ reports the Ford employee had not been to work between being exposed to the virus and testing positive, so employees were never at risk.)

“There are real concerns about just how likely it is that one infected work might infect a lot of their colleagues; perhaps the entire plant.” – Paul Eisenstein, The Detroit Bureau

Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers union is pushing for plant shutdowns as public officials warn against gatherings of over 10, and gatherings over 50 have been curtailed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order.

Paul Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau.  He tells WDET’s Alex McLenon a task force formed by Detroit’s auto manufacturers and the United Auto Workers union is currently addressing the health of assembly line workers.

Click on the player above to hear The Detroit Bureau’s Paul Eisenstein discuss the risks of coronavirus in auto facilities, and read transcript, edited for length and clarity, below.

Alex McLenon, 101.9 WDET: What is being done to protect auto industry workers from contracting COVID-19?

Paul Eisenstein, The Detroit Bureau: Right now, there is a task force formed by each of the Big Three and the United Auto Workers union to address that problem. A lot of workers are not about having to go in and work on the line when they know there is an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. But so far the Detroit auto makers have, at least in the United States, said they are going to continue operating their assembly plants.

How much interaction do the auto workers have with each other on the assembly lines? Are they pretty much isolated to their station or is there a chance for the virus to spread there?

One of the things that’s unclear right now is exactly how is easy the coronavirus is to spread. The general consensus is that you have to have fairly intimate contact with one another, which is why we’re hearing experts say to keep about six feet apart. But that just doesn’t seem to be an absolute guarantee.

Could one worker who’s infected touch part of a car and then the next worker down the line get the infection? That’s unclear. Workers do file in through the same doors and so on, so there are real concerns about just how likely it is that one infected work might infect a lot of their colleagues; perhaps the entire plant.

As cases of the virus start cropping up more and more, what’s the financial outlook for the auto industry?

Well let’s take a look at what we just heard from Herbert Diess, who is the CEO of Volkswagen group. He had a news conference in Germany today and he said that it is going to be a, quote, very difficult year for the auto maker. For one reason, they’re one of the biggest auto makers in China. So they’ve been hammered by the shutdown of their plants and the fact that Chinese auto sales were down 80% last month.

In Europe the auto industry is pretty much in stand still – sales are way down. We are hearing anecdotally that sales are really tumbling in the United States, especially in some of the states that are hardest hit like California and Washington state. So I would be stunned if we don’t see real serious drops in car sales once the March numbers are in.