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Detroit carmakers send office workers home, keep plants running

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Detroit's three automakers are asking office employees to work remotely while pushing production staff keep running many of their factories -- including one where a worker tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles's salaried personnel, including 14,000 at its U.S. headquarters north of Detroit, were told to work from home as of Thursday, a spokesman said. A transmission factory in Indiana is continuing to operate despite a worker there testing positive for Covid-19.

General Motors and Ford followed suit Friday, issuing directives for their office personnel to work remotely. The companies continue to build vehicles despite analysts warning the virus will significantly curtail demand around the globe. In China, where the illness originated, car sales plunged a record 79% in February.

"Clearly we are now moving beyond regional hot spots and into planning for how this will impact every area of our business across the world," Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Mike Manley wrote in a letter to employees Friday. "We are now managing the company to ensure business continuity, in particular focusing on how we keep production lines running and vehicle programs on track."

Fiat Chrysler temporarily shut plants in Italy for cleaning as it tries to help combat spread of the virus in the country, where more than 1,000 have died. In Canada, employees at the company's minivan assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario, have refused to work since mid-afternoon Thursday.

In the U.S., its Indiana worker is receiving medical care, and those who worked nearby or may have come in contact with him have been put in home quarantine.

On Friday, Fiat Chrysler's U.S. shares recouped some of their losses from the biggest drop since the 2014 merger that formed the company. The stock was up 4.7% as of 1:13 p.m. in New York. GM rose 2.4%, while Ford declined 0.8%.

Fiat Chrysler declined to provide the Indiana worker's name, age or other personal information such as his recent travel history for privacy reasons. The carmaker has disinfected his work station and is sanitizing the entire plant in Kokomo, Indiana, which employs roughly 4,000. Output is running at a normal pace, but the company is adjusting break times to avoid crowding and deploying social spacing to increase distances between workers.

The United Auto Workers is working closely with Fiat Chrysler on measures to protect its members, Cindy Estrada, a vice president of the union, said in a statement. The UAW said it's in talks with automakers and companies in other sectors regarding paid leave for workers who have not been tested but have to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the virus.

Just last week, Mark Stewart, Fiat Chrysler's chief operations officer for North America, visited Kokomo to christen a new investment at a separate, idled transmission plant that will be re-purposed for engine production. He said the company's crisis teams were monitoring supply risks and that travel had been curtailed due to the virus, but operations were "progressing OK."

The company does not foresee any production shutdowns in the U.S., Simon Sproule, its chief communications officer, said Thursday. Ford also doesn't expect to idle major facilities, according to Mark Truby, the company's top spokesman.

A day after Michigan announced its first coronavirus cases, Fiat Chrysler said it would limit in-person meetings, rely on video conferencing and refuse visitors from countries with acute outbreaks.

The company said Wednesday it may have to close some parts factories in northern Italy to support a nationwide campaign to contain the virus. It's slowing production at some plants there to enable greater spacing between workers.

Fiat Chrysler's instructions for salaried employees to work from home will vary by department, and remain in effect until further notice, the company said.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett wrote to employees that they needed to prepare as they left the office for the day to be away by taking home laptops, mobile devices and personal items. And GM CEO Mary Barra addressed workers who won't be able to do their job remotely in her memo to staff.

"Given the current drop in use of public transportation and extensive flight cancellations, our customers are looking to us more than ever to ensure they have the vehicles, parts and services they need," she said.



Published : March 13, 2020

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Gabrielle Coppola, Daniele Lepido · BUSINESS, US-GLOBAL-MARKETS