General Motors will lay off its third shift of workers at the assembly plant where it builds its midsize pickups and full-size vans as cases of coronavirus surge in the surrounding community.
The automaker said starting July 20 it will reduce its Wentzville Assembly plant, which is near St. Louis, Mo., to two shifts.
“We believe in the short term a two-shift operation plan will allow us to operate as efficiently as possible and accommodate team members who are not reporting to work due to concerns about COVID-19 in the local community,” GM spokesman David Barnas told the Free Press on Saturday.
But the layoffs will delay GM’s efforts to restock supplies of the usually hot-selling Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups, Barnas said. Second-quarter sales saw a big decline in the slowing economy.
There are 1,250 workers per shift at Wentzville, he said. GM is still working on the details regarding the exact number of workers for temporary layoffs, he said. Also, there is no time frame set yet on the length of the layoff.
“We are working on a staffing plan that will allow us to return to three shifts as soon as possible,” Barnas said.
‘This is not good!’
The move comes after UAW leadership and GM leadership were in discussions all week as to what to do about Wentzville and GM’s Arlington Assembly plant in Texas, said two sources familiar with the matter who declined to be named because they are not authorized to share that information with the media. Arlington sits near Dallas, a community that is also experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases.
Since the UAW negotiated its current contract prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, there is no clause to address how to handle it, therefore the union and the automakers must stay in continual discussions on ways to address the changing situation.
Late Friday night, the local shop chairman at Wentzville sent out a union posting to members that was obtained by the Free Press.
It read: “I have just been notified that a third shift is going on temporary layoff very soon due to many ‘manpower’ issues! More information will be provided ASAP! Plans are currently being developed to minimize the impact on membership. Updates will be provided asap! This is not good! Chairman Alan Chambliss.”
Neither the UAW Local 2250 Shop Chairman Chambliss nor President Glenn Kage could be reached for comment.
The UAW could not immediately comment on the news, but spokesman Brian Rothenberg said, “We are monitoring the situation.”
GM has laid off workers at another plant since restarting U.S. factories. In June, GM said it would cut the third shift at its Spring Hill Assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. By July 31, GM will lay off 525 production and skilled traders workers and 155 temporary employees at the plant. The cuts are related to sluggish auto sales in the sagging economy, GM said. GM makes the Cadillac XT5, Cadillac XT6 and GMC Acadia SUVs in Spring Hill.
Wentzville is one of GM’s key plants. It assembles the profitable Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups. GM also builds the Chevy Express and GMC Savana full-size vans in the 5.1-million-square-foot plant.
GM dealers have been clamoring for inventory after the Detroit Three shut down their North American factories from late March through mid-May amid the growing pandemic. GM does not break out its inventory levels by vehicle line, but Barnas said the layoffs will affect supplies.
“We’ve got jobs for three shifts at Wentzville because of strong dealer and customer demand for our midsize trucks and vans,” Barnas said. “It will take us longer to rebuild inventory than it would if we were operating at a stable three full shifts of production.”
In the second quarter, GM said sales of the Colorado dropped 37.3% to 19,843, the Express sales plunged 58.2% to 9,006, while sales of the Canyon tumbled 56.1% to 5,225 and sales of the Savana dropped 68.6% to 2,984.
Do not be concerned
In a union communication posted earlier Friday also obtained by the Free Press, Chambliss said there are now 23 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the plant.
GM’s policy is to not confirm the number of coronavirus cases in its plants.
On June 12, Wentzville had five cases, since restarting operations in mid-May. At that time, Kage told the Free Press the union had asked GM to shut down the plant and GM declined. But GM sprayed the plant with chemical disinfectant over the Fourth of July weekend.
The plant employs 4,100 people, so 23 is a small percentage of the workforce. Still workers’ fear of community spread has caused absenteeism in the plant to soar, two sources familiar with plant operations said. They declined to be named because they were not authorized to share that information with the media.
The worker anxiety stems largely from a surge of cases in the surrounding community. Wentzville is located in St. Charles County. As of 4:45 p.m. Friday, there were 1,526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in St. Charles County and 77 deaths, according to the county’s public health website. That is up from 786 cases and 60 deaths in the county on June 1.
But Barnas said, “People on our team should not be concerned about coming to work. GM Wentzville is 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.”
He said the same in-plant protocols can help keep people safe when they’re not at work, “We encouraging every one to follow them especially social distancing and wearing masks when they’re in groups.”
A Texas hot spot
GM also faces concerns from local union leaders at its plant in Arlington, Texas, which sits near Dallas. On Friday, Dallas County Health and Human Services reported 1,164 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total case count in Dallas County to 31,525, with 445 total deaths to date.
Even in Tarrant County, where the plant is located, there were 404 new cases on Sunday, bringing the total to 18,161, said the Tarrant County public health website.
As first reported by the Free Press, UAW Local 276’s shop chairman had asked on June 30 for GM to shut down the plant.
But GM kept it running. Spokesman Jim Cain said at the time, “We’re always open to talking about safety and doing what we can to improve our processes. But what’s always going to guide us is what’s scientific and medically the right thing to do.”
UAW Local 276 represents nearly 5,000 workers at GM’s Arlington plant where GM builds its highly profitable Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban full-size SUVs. It is the most profitable plant in the country, said John McElroy, host at Autoline.tv.
As of July 3, there were 22 confirmed cases at Arlington, the Free Press reported. The growing cases in the surrounding area and the plant sparked increased concern at the UAW International level.
“The UAW is watching very carefully how these health and safety factors are impacting different plants and we are in a continual dialogue at all levels,” said UAW’s Rothenberg in a previous report. “Health and safety for all members is our priority.”
The union is “constantly in discussions” with the company, Rothenberg said, on ways to enhance protocols.
Barnas declined to comment Saturday on GM’s plans for Arlington.
But, he said, “people on our team should not be concerned about coming to work. GM Arlington is 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.”
The UAW does not have the ability to officially shut down a factory; the company has to make that call.
©2020 Detroit Free Press