There appears to be light at the end of the assembly line.
Nearly a full year after COVID- 19 ignited a period of fear and unease for U.S. auto workers that led to plant shutdowns and strict safety measures, the industry has entered a more hopeful phase in the pandemic fight.
At the Jeep Cherokee plant in Belvidere, Ill., in February, Stellantis became the first automaker in the U.S. to begin vaccinating its hourly work force.
The process moved quickly after Illinois made doses available to front-line essential workers, which it considers those in manufacturing to be.
Stellantis was able to roll out the vaccine on short notice because of a nearby health facility it opened last summer in partnership with SwedishAmerican Health System.
Vaccine distribution comes with a set of new challenges for the auto industry. The goal early in the pandemic was to get workers back on the lines in a safe environment that required masks, social distancing, updated cleaning protocols and temperature checks.
Now, manufacturers have to monitor vaccine instructions that vary by state in an ongoing waiting game while conducting outreach to ensure workers are comfortable getting the free vaccine when their time comes.
"The biggest issue we've really had to date is just access to the vaccine overall," Dolf Van Amersfoort, vice president of compensation and benefits in North America for Stellantis, told Automotive News. "And I think that's probably going to be the case for the next few weeks and months until that becomes more available throughout most of the states where we operate."
The Belvidere Assembly Plant clinic was allotted doses for 1,200 people, about a third of the work force, who received the first of two shots of the Moderna vaccine last month. The second round for those workers begins this week.
Meanwhile, workers at most other plants are still waiting for their chance. Many of them, weary of breathing through a stuffy mask for every long, arduous shift on the line, are hopeful some safety measures can be relaxed if enough of their colleagues get the vaccine. Despite speculation at some recent employee meetings, the automakers aren't saying whether any changes to mask protocols could be on the horizon.
General Motors said vaccinations are one measure, in addition to masks and social distancing, to limit the spread of the virus.