US plants hope to maintain production despite virus threat

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - U.S. factories have been cranking goods at rates remarkably close to normal during much of the pandemic. However, manufacturers are concerned that they may not be able to keep up until most of the country is vaccinated as the coronavirus continues to increase in areas with high crops.
Protective measures put in place after the first wave of the virus appear to have prevented the major outbreaks that sickened hundreds of workers and forced automakers, meat processors and other companies to shut down production last spring. With the US COVID-19 death toll of 300,000 and the surge in viruses in the communities surrounding the plants, industry and union officials say it may be impossible to keep the virus out of factories.
"We're seeing an increase in the number of positive (test) rates like you see in the surrounding communities," said Gary Johnson, chief manufacturing officer at Ford Motor Co., which employs approximately 56,000 factory workers per hour nationwide.
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Federal Reserve statistics show US industrial production is about 5% below levels in February before the pandemic. It fell 16.5% between February and April but has since rebounded, led by auto manufacturing.
According to Lee Schulz, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, beef and pork production was just below the previous year's level.
However, since it will be months before many people can be vaccinated, factories remain vulnerable.
"Even if we're fine now, this virus can spread quickly in certain areas," said Mark Lauritsen, director of food processing and meat packaging at United Food and Commercial Workers International. "I worry every day that this virus will explode again in one of our plants, despite all the precautions we have taken."
At auto factories and factories in other industries where the United Auto Workers union represents workers, cases have risen slightly since around Halloween, but almost all have been traced outside of the plants, said UAW President Rory Gamble.
Since reopening in May after an eight-week shutdown, three employees at Fiat Chrysler's factories near Detroit have died from the virus, causing fear among thousands of workers.
Gamble said much of the fear came from misinformation about workers contracting the virus in factories, which is not true.
"You need to have a full understanding that we are doing everything we can to protect them," said Gamble. "Because they have the right to be afraid."
Statistics on the impact of the pandemic on the meat packaging industry are cause for concern. The UFCW union, which represents around 80% of the country's beef and pork workers and 33% of the country's poultry workers, estimates that at least 19,800 meat packers have been infected or exposed and 128 have died from COVID-19.
Employees like Donald Nix, who works at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, grapple with the virus that left him with a fever, body ache and severe headache for 27 days in the spring.
Nix, 51, is concerned because employees keep getting sick. In the spring, more than 1,000 of the plant's 2,800 workers were infected and at least six died. “My job is still a high risk. My job is still very risky, ”he said.
However, the meat industry giants - Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS and Cargill - claim that the safety measures put in place after the major outbreaks last spring allowed them to limit the spread of the virus.
“We have made significant investments in personal protective equipment, social distancing measures, and other enhanced health and safety measures at our company. We have seen a dramatic decrease in active cases with our team members since last spring, ”Dean Banks, CEO of Tyson, recently told investors.
Measures include wellness questionnaires before work, temperature checks, plastic sieves between workplaces, increased cleaning of plants, spot checks and the required use of masks and other protective equipment. The industry spent around $ 2.5 billion on these improvements and additional wages for workers in the first six months, said Will Sawyer, protein economist at Cobank, an agribusiness bank.
At Ford, factories are operating on roughly 98% of their pre-pandemic production. Most workers who have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus stay at home until the threat of infecting others is gone, which limits the spread in the plants, Johnson said. The automaker is hiring temporary workers to take their places so the assembly lines can keep going.
Auto and meat packing companies say that generally less than 1% of their workforce is infected with the virus. Automakers and the UAW are encouraging workers to wear masks in public outside the plants.
Members of the UAW, which represents 150,000 employees at General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, said the companies had largely adhered to their precautions and protocols.
"I know people who have had it and tested positive, but as far as I know they are doing what they're supposed to do to quarantine people and have them tested," said Andrea Repasky, a forklift driver at GM's pickup factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
People she passes at the plant always wear the correct protective gear, she said. Management reports how many people tested positive on each shift, and the numbers were relatively small, even with a small increase after Thanksgiving, she said.
Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and others are starting to see minor issues with smaller parts companies having to shut down factories due to virus outbreaks or government restrictions, particularly in Mexico. A shortage of truck drivers is affecting parts deliveries, according to Ford's Johnson. The company set up just-in-time freight to get parts to run the facilities, he said.
Ford had to postpone production of its new Bronco SUV from spring to summer because the company had no virus-related parts defects.
Toyota said it nearly stalled due to a lack of parts, but so far they have managed to avoid it.
"There were sure to be a few close calls," said spokesman Scott Vazin. "Every day we have up to 10 parts that we closely monitor on alert."
UFCW's Lauritsen hopes the industry will continue to work hard to limit the spread of the virus.
"We can't get complacent just because things seem to be holding up right now," said Lauritsen. "We know that plants of any kind - whenever humans come together in large groups - can act as a super-spreader with this virus."
Krisher reported from Detroit.
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