While Detroit automakers’ unionized auto factories have been idled by the coronavirus pandemic, farm and construction equipment makers Deere and Caterpillar have won the support of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and other unions to run their facilities.
As U.S. states begin to lift lockdown orders and companies gear up to restart production, the policies put in place by the two heavy equipment makers offer a template for returning workers to idled factories in other sectors.
Giving employees sick time without penalty, temperature screenings, staggered shifts, and hiring a hygiene-auditing firm are some of the measures the two companies have taken to reassure employees to stay on production lines when many union and non-union workers balk at reporting for jobs that could expose them to the virus.
Detroit’s auto companies had to negotiate long and hard with the UAW, which represents their hourly workers, over how and when to restart U.S. production. The union blocked the automakers’ plans to restart their factories May 4.
The union has since indicated that its members are ready to return to work at a few U.S. plants.
By contrast, the UAW let Deere resume production at two of its facilities within days of employees testing positive for the virus.
Union officials attribute that decision to a safety policy they negotiated with the company that mandates a strict implementation of guidelines prescribed by the nation’s health protection agency and the World Health Organization.
But it was a provision for expanded benefits that sealed the deal, UAW officials say.
“One of our priorities on the health and safety issue is to make sure that our members can self-report without any kind of penalty,” said Brian Rothenberg, the union’s public relations director. The union is negotiating with all its employers for similar benefits in order to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace.
Under its agreement with the UAW, Deere is providing paid sick leave to cover the recommended 14 days of self-quarantine, even to workers who think they have been exposed to the virus but are not certain and have not been tested.
“The last thing we wanted was for individuals to feel compelled to come to work to get paid,” a Deere official said.
The company altered shift schedules to ensure employees from one shift exit before the next shift reports to work. It also hired an industrial-hygiene company to audit the sanitization work at some of its larger units.
Additionally, the manufacturer enhanced pay provisions to cover the challenges workers face due to day care and school closings. It also waived copays, coinsurance and deductibles for its employees for coronavirus testing.