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Economy & Business

Thousands Of Automaker Plant Workers Set To Return To Assembly Lines

DON GONYEA, HOST:

North American auto manufacturing plants will begin a phased-in reopening as early as tomorrow, potentially bringing thousands of laid-off workers back to assembly lines amid the coronavirus pandemic. Michigan is home to the headquarters of the largest U.S. automakers, and last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave the industry the go-ahead to resume work at factories in the state for the first time since they were shut down in March. Some union officials are skeptical of the reopening, though management says necessary safety precautions will be in place.

We wanted to know what this restart may be like for the auto industry and for its employees, so we called Michelle Krebs. She's the senior director of automotive relations for Cox Automotive and executive analyst for Autotrader. She joins us now from Detroit.

Michelle Krebs, welcome.

MICHELLE KREBS: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: What do we know right now about when the first of the auto manufacturing plants will actually come back to life?

KREBS: There actually are a couple already come back to life - some of the import manufacturers. But the Detroit three will be restarting assembly plants probably next Monday. You know, they've got to start making the parts and engines first. So that's the first step, is get the engines and transmissions and all the bits that go into making a vehicle ready so that they can start producing the vehicles next week.

GONYEA: I can picture this huge system with all of these interconnected plants kind of groaning back to life.

KREBS: Right. And, you know, some of the parts aren't even made in the U.S. There are parts made in China. There are a lot of parts made in Mexico, which is a huge concern to automakers right now because they - Mexico makes so many of the parts that go into U.S.-built vehicles, and Mexico's technically not up and running yet. So everybody's fingers are crossed that they are - they have accounted for every supplier, every part so that once they get the line running, they can keep it running.

GONYEA: OK. But it is very much not a case where we go, OK, 8 a.m., first shift, we're going.

KREBS: Oh, no. And it will not be business as usual at the plants by any means. Workers immediately will notice a huge difference as they come through the gates. For one, there will - they don't want massive amounts of people, which is typical, to go through the gates at - all at the same time. They will have those staggered.

They will have their temperature taken. They may well be asked to fill out a health form to make sure that they haven't been exposed to the virus. And once they get inside the plant, the workstations will be different. They'll be farther apart. Their jobs may be changed a little bit as a result. And the community areas, places like the cafeterias, will be vastly changed to make sure that there's social distancing.

GONYEA: What's your take on what the union's role has been as part of the discussions leading to the restarting of these plants and how they've been working with management?

KREBS: The UAW has been in constant discussions with the Detroit automakers to make sure that their employees are safe. There have been a couple of dozen auto workers - not just represented by the UAW, but some at other transplant plants - that have actually died of COVID-19. And so this has struck home for workers, so they're very concerned about the safety. I think I saw one quoted saying, if you can say that I'm OK with putting my kid in the plant, then OK. But there is a lot of nervousness.

GONYEA: On Friday of last week, the Labor Department reported 1.3 million manufacturing jobs lost in April. I know the number of jobs in the auto industry has declined significantly going back decades now. Give me some sense of how important this industry is today in terms of the larger economy.

KREBS: Well, the auto industry in general is - I think there's a statistic that it's - for every one auto assembly job, there are eight other jobs. If you think about people who work in supplier plants, the people who work in car dealerships who have also been laid off, all of the oil change places - it's a huge ecosystem that involves a lot of people.

So it's a very critical part of the industry. We saw that in the Great Recession. That's why the federal government came to the rescue to save the manufacturing sector then. And I think we're seeing the importance has now been lost. It's a very significant part of the economy.

GONYEA: That was Michelle Krebs. She is a senior director of automotive relations for Cox Automotive and executive analyst for Autotrader.

Michelle, thank you.

KREBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.