While its U.S. factories have been up and running since June, General Motors may not bring a sizable share of its 40,000 U.S. salaried workers back from home until late this year or even 2021, according to an internal memo, as the automaker continues to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are some exceptions, including a select group of employees involved in product development who cannot work remotely, as well as salaried workers who’ve been tapped to fill in for hourly line workers who’ve been out due to the pandemic. That has triggered a grievance filed by the United Auto Workers union.
Like other automakers, GM has been struggling to find ways to return operations to normal without increasing the risk of employee infections. In a memo first published by the Detroit Free Press, Steve Carlisle, GM’s president of North American operations, said some salaried staff could be called back as early as Oct. 1 – if it’s both necessary and safe to do so. But others may continue working remotely through the end of this year and even into 2021.
“In the U.S., employees will begin to receive general access to GM’s facilities,” Carlisle wrote in the July 31 memo. “Access will be granted in a cadenced manner and will be limited to Tuesday through Thursday in the beginning, later expanded to the full work week.”
GM announced it was effectively shutting down its North American operations in mid-March due to the pandemic. It was hardly alone, virtually the entire auto industry on hiatus from late March through mid-May. At that point, various manufacturers slowly began reopening production plants though most salaried workers across the U.S. and Canada continue to work remotely or, at most, report in to their offices on a limited basis.
The primary exceptions involve work that cannot be done at home, such as various product development tasks that might involve such things as modeling, wind tunnel testing or doing final work on the many vehicles coming to market in the months ahead, such as the new GMC Hummer all-electric pickup.
According to GM, final plans for returning the rest of the GM salaried staff are still being finalized. Managers will be asked to lay out and justify plans if they believe that getting staff back by October would be necessary. In his memo, however, Carlisle indicated workers will not be required to report back if they choose to continue working remotely due to concerns about COVID-19.
The facility most directly impacted by the current stay-at-home policy is the General Motors Technical Center in the Detroit suburb of Warren where 22,000 normally work. Another 5,000 normally report in at the GM headquarters along the Detroit River, a half hour to the south. About 4,000 more are employed at the GM Proving Ground in Milford, a northwestern suburb of Detroit.
All together, GM employs 86,000 in the U.S., and the majority of 46,000 hourly workers are now back on the job in a network of warehouses, distribution centers, and parts and assembly plants stretching from Texas to Michigan.
But higher-than-normal absenteeism has been a problem facing GM – like other manufacturers – since its factories started running again in early June. At times, some plants have faced problems finding enough hourly workers to operate all stations along their lines.
“It’s been a challenge to achieve the kind of stability you’d like to see,” spokesman Jim Cain told CNBC. “To bridge us through until we can get to our long-term solution, we have asked for volunteers from the salaried team, primarily within manufacturing, to spend at least a week working the line.”
One of the major problem spots has been the Wentzville, Missouri plant producing the midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups and the Chevy Express and GMC Savanna vans. The state has had a major outbreak of the pandemic, with the area around the Wentzville plant one of Missouri’s hotspots.
The UAW has “strenuously objected” to the use of non-union workers at Wentzville, calling it a “violation” of the current, four-year GM contract.
The Detroit automaker isn’t the only carmaker to face high absenteeism, and several automakers have confirmed to TheDetroitBureau.com that they have faced struggles maintaining production rates. Honda recently confirmed that it was forced to rely on help from its own salaried staff to keep its production operations going.