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Infected workers, parts shortages slow auto factory restarts

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. auto industry’s coronavirus comeback plan was pretty simple: restart factories gradually and push out trucks and other vehicles for waiting buyers in states left largely untouched by the virus outbreak.

Yet the return from a two-month production shutdown hasn’t gone quite according to plan. For some automakers, full production has been delayed, or it’s been herky-herky, with production lines stopping and starting due to infected workers or parts shortages from Mexico and elsewhere.

“There’s a lot that can go wrong in bringing people back into the plants to try to build very complicated assemblies,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry and labor at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank.

Most automakers closed factories in mid-to-late March when workers began to get sick as the novel coronavirus spread. The factories started to reopen on one or two shifts in mid-May as state stay-home restrictions eased, with automakers touting safety precautions that include checking workers’ temperatures, certification by workers that they don’t have symptoms, social distancing, time between shifts and plastic barriers where possible to keep workers apart.

Still, some workers got COVID-19, although it’s not known where they were infected. In some cases they still came to work, forcing companies to close plants temporarily for cleaning. In at least one case, a worker at a seat-making plant near Chicago got the virus, forcing a shutdown and cutting off parts. General Motors had to delay adding shifts at truck plants because the Mexican government wouldn’t allow full parts factory restarts until June 1.

Ford seemed to be hit the hardest, pausing production a half-dozen times in Dearborn, Michigan; Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri; to disinfect equipment and isolate workers who may have come in contact with those who tested positive.

Honda and Toyota each reported brief production pauses to disinfect equipment when a small number of workers became infected. GM and Fiat Chrysler said they have not shut down production lines due to infected workers.

None of the automakers would give exact numbers of workers who have become ill since plants were restarted. The United Auto Workers union said Ford and GM have had at least a half-dozen cases, while Fiat Chrysler has had five. At least 25 UAW members employed by the Detroit Three have died from the virus this year, but it’s not clear where they caught it.

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