When the plants reopen, workers will be subject to vastly different health and safety policies from before. At least two dozen UAW members in the auto industry were known to have died from COVID-19 as of last week.
"If this is going to work, we need to do this right. And importantly the return to work date should be dictated by the science of the contagion curve, not economic factors," UAW President Rory Gamble said in a statement. "If we do this wrong, we all will only have a prolonged economic hardship."
The Detroit 3 and UAW created a joint coronavirus task force last month to coordinate plant shutdowns and plans to protect workers. The task force also could adjust sick-day policies so workers are more inclined to stay home when they feel ill and self-report contact with someone who has the virus.
The automakers and the UAW are working on advanced safety protocols that have been effective at factories where small numbers of workers are making ventilators and respirators to treat the virus. All of the Detroit 3 are likely to take virtually identical approaches. "I think there will be one industry solution. We all share the same interest in sharing perspective," GM spokesman Jim Cain said.
In a message to U.S. workers last week, GM said it would focus on three areas: keeping sick employees at home, enforcing strict safety requirements in the plants and managing cases that are discovered among the work force.
GM will give employees a health questionnaire and temperature screening before they enter a plant, and employees will be required to wear safety glasses and GM-provided medical-grade masks. Workers will have to abide by social distancing rules. If someone gets ill at work, GM has protocols related to cleaning and contact tracing.
Ford is making masks for its employees to wear when they return to work and testing social distancing wristbands, which buzz when employees come within 6 feet of each other.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles plans to resume operations May 4 at some U.S. and Canadian plants and May 18 at others, the automaker told suppliers last week. All of the plants would initially have just one daily shift.
Marlo Vitous, FCA's head of North America supply chain planning and global inter-regional flow, told suppliers the company will only restart with "safe, secure and sanitized" workplaces.
Automakers are preparing their supply chains to come back to life, but with states under stay-at-home orders with varying end dates — some of which have already changed multiple times in response to continued reports of new cases and deaths — production logistics will be challenging. Through last week, more than a dozen states had extended stay-at-home orders beyond May 4.
"If you have parts being supplied by a state that isn't under the same guidelines as you, this could make it extremely difficult to open," Bailo said. "It has to be very coordinated by plant. And there are certain plants, based on customer demand, you're going to want to open sooner than others."
Thomas King, president of J.D. Power's data and analytics division, said he doesn't expect manufacturers to start with full output.
"Run rates in the plants may be slightly lower than normal because of the need to implement these additional safety protocols," he said.
King is wary of supply chain hiccups that could arise but said the industry will have at least six weeks to prepare by then.
Martin Horneck, FCA's head of purchasing and supply chain for North America, told suppliers last week that the weakest link will determine the strength of the chain. Horneck stressed the need for communication among suppliers as the automaker prepares to revive its factories early next month. "It's important that you see across your supply chain," Horneck told them.
Vince Bond Jr. contributed to this report.