GM to call up hundreds of laid-off workers to meet production demand at key truck plants

General Motors Co. has a problem with absenteeism at its vital truck plants just when it needs every single body it can get on the assembly line.
GM is working feverishly to replenish supplies of the in-demand pickups and full-sized SUVs after idling its U.S. factories from late-March through mid-May amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Take Fort Wayne Assembly in Indiana where GM builds its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size light-duty pickups. The plant has about 4,100 hourly workers and nearly 1,000 of them are off for various reasons — as many as  200 workers are off for COVID-19 related reasons. 
So it is increasingly harder for GM to hit the daily build target of 1,290 pickups there. If you look down the assembly line, you'll likely see something that should never be, said a person familiar with the plant, but who is not authorized to speak to the media and asked to not be named. .
A GMC Sierra 1500 pickup on the assembly line at the General Motors Fort Wayne Assembly plant on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 in Roanoke, Indiana. GM announced Thursday, May 30, 2019 it is investing $24 million in the plant to expand production of full size Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 pickups in Roanoke, Indiana.
Ryan Hake, General Motors
"They’re at the full schedule, but they have every single person on that assembly line, including management, and management is not supposed to be on the line,” said the person. “It’s all hands on deck, just to build trucks.”
To alleviate the problem, GM told union leaders at Flint Assembly, Fort Wayne Assembly, and Arlington Assembly in Texas that it will be adding hundreds of permanent workers to the plants, some starting in early August. They will not be new hires, but rather GM workers laid off at other plants who will be given the chance to permanently transfer to one of the truck facilities. 
"It is ... no secret that we have people on layoff from Detroit-Hamtramck and upcoming at Spring Hill, so it makes sense to shore-up our workforce in the important truck and heavy-duty SUV plants," said another person familiar with the situation but who asked to not be named because they are not authorized to share that with the media.

Detroit's 430 laid-off workers

A GM spokesman did not comment on managers helping build pickups, other than to say GM is doing everything to address the production challenges in the plants while keeping workers safe during the pandemic.
“We are operating our plants as efficiently as possible while accommodating team members who are not reporting to work due to concerns about COVID-19 in the community," said GM spokesman David Barnas.
By month-end,  GM will have access to a wider workforce. Effective July 31, GM has said it will cut the third shift at its Spring Hill Assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The move impacts 680 workers there, 525 of whom are production and skilled trade employees. The cuts are the result of slow sales of the Cadillac XT5, Cadillac XT6, and GMC Acadia SUVs made in Spring Hill. 
Likewise, GM still has 430 workers laid off from Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly after the last Chevrolet Impala sedan rolled off the line on Feb.  27. GM was going to transfer many of those people to the  Lansing Delta Township plant, where it builds the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs, but then GM decided to keep that plant at two shifts.
The last Chevrolet Impala to be built at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly rolled off the line Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. It's the last internal combustion engine car to be built at the plant. GM will idle the factory for 12-18 months and retool it to build all-electric vehicles.
Jeffrey Sauger
GM declined to provide specific details on the number of employees it will transfer to the truck plants, but, Barnas said: "We will follow the provisions of the national agreement. But we believe our staffing plans will allow us to continue supporting three production shifts at Fort Wayne, Flint, and Arlington to meet strong customer and dealer demand for our pickup trucks and full-size SUVs.”
The union's contract allows laid-off workers first dibs to rehire at the plant that they were laid off from, then they can apply for a job at a plant within a 50-mile radius of their home plant. The region expands from there. If a worker declines a transfer, they typically remain laid off, according to the contract. 
"All of these transfers are being done in accordance with the agreement that was negotiated based on seniority and transfers," said Brian Rothenberg, UAW spokesman.

Flint: 'We need help'

At Flint Assembly, where GM builds its full-size heavy-duty pickups, it is running at full capacity. Workers usually hit the daily production target, but sometimes they fall short by a dozen or so, said Eric Welter, UAW Local 598 shop chairman at the plant. He declined to disclose the total number of pickups the plant targets to build each day.
“We do need some help," Welter told the Free Press. "We’re getting 100 people. They’re laid off anyways and they need the work. They’re coming from Detroit-Hamtramck, Spring Hill, Pontiac, and Milford.”
Welter said he learned of the 100 new permanent jobs Monday morning. His plant will start getting about 50 of the Aug. 10, the other half Aug. 17, Welter said.
UAW Local 598 Shop Chairman Eric Welter. He represents the 5,000 hourly workers at General Motors Flint Assembly plant where the automaker builds its heavy-duty pickups.
Courtesy/UAW Local 598
The news hit him two days after the Free Press first reported that GM will temporarily reduce its Wentzville Assembly plant, which is near St. Louis, Missouri, to two shifts starting July 20. Heavy absenteeism there among nervous workers as cases of coronavirus surge in the surrounding community was cited as a reason. 
When asked how long Wentzville's third-shift would be laid off and whether Wentzville would get transfers from other plants to help boost production of the midsize pickups and full-size vans it builds, GM's Barnas said only, "We are working on a staffing plan at Wentzville that will allow us to return to three production shifts as soon as possible in order to meet strong customer and dealer demand for our mid-size trucks.”
Welter said absenteeism is high at Flint Assembly, too.
“It’s up there, roughly 600 people are on some sort of leave of absence, whether it's sick leave and personal leave, and then we have people on vacation and an extra 100 on COVID leave," Welter said. "It’s tough on the plants. But we’re running.”
Trucks sit in the final line at the Body Shop of General Motors Flint Assembly in Flint on Tuesday, February 5, 2019.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
There are about 5,000 workers at Flint. Seven workers have tested positive for coronavirus since the plant restarted in mid-May, Welter said. The 100 workers on "COVID leave" are those who have an immune disorder and cannot work, or they are in quarantine due to exposure to someone who tested positive for the COVID-19, or they have to care for someone with the virus.
“It’s a difficult environment to work in. My people are stepping up to get it done," Welter said. "But it is hot wearing masks all day and doing the heavy work."

Fort Wayne's options

At Fort Wayne, GM will add 318 workers, according to a report sent to workers by shop chairman Rich LeTourneau. The report, obtained by the Free Press, is dated July 10 and says there are 737 members on family leave status, 268 members on sick leave, and 157 members on leave for "something other than sick leave." 
The workers will start arriving in the first two weeks in August. The plant has nine confirmed COVID-19 cases, said the person familiar with the plant. By policy, GM does not release the number of COVID-19 cases in plants. 
LeTourneau's letter reads: "At this point, GM has no intention of shutting any plants down, we are being told. They do not see an end in sight as it relates to COVID-19 either." 
When asked to comment on that point, GM's Barnas said, "People on our team should not be concerned about coming to work. All of our sites are following multilayered safety protocols that are working very well to keep people safe by reducing the possibility that COVID-19 can enter the plant and preventing any spread within the plant."
Barnas said the same plant protocols can help keep people safe outside of work, especially social distancing and wearing masks.
Local union leaders at Wentzville and Arlington have asked GM to shut down the plants as cases of coronavirus in their surrounding communities surged. But GM has kept both running. 
It’s not known how many workers Arlington will get because no one from Arlington replied to a request for comment.
The UAW negotiated its current contract prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, so there is no clause to address how to handle it. The union and the automakers must stay in continual discussions on ways to address the changing situation.
"I told the company a month ago this is only going to get worse, so you’ve got two choices here: You shut the plant down or you run two shifts," said the person familiar with Fort Wayne. "They said we’ll play it when we get there. The two shifts are an option."
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