Back to work? Companies finding it easier said than done

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Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo robots weld the bed of a 2018 Ford F-150 truck on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich. U.S. businesses are edging their way toward figuring out how to bring their employees back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, some more gracefully than others. Detroit-area automakers, which suspended production in March 2020, are now pushing to restart factories as soon as possible. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

NEW YORK – As state and federal leaders tussle over when and how fast to “reopen” the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, some corporations are taking the first steps toward bringing their employees back to work. Which in many cases is easier said than done.

Detroit-area automakers, which suspended production roughly a month ago, are pushing to restart factories as states like Michigan prepare to relax their stay-at-home orders. Fiat Chrysler has already announced a May 4 gradual restart date; General Motors and Ford don't want to be left behind.

In negotiations with the United Auto Workers union, automakers are offering to provide protective gear, frequently sanitize equipment, and to take worker temperatures to prevent anyone with a fever from entering factories. These steps, they say, have worked at repurposed factories now making medical equipment.

Matt Himes, who installs SUV doors at a GM plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, said he’s ready to get back to work. But he also fears catching the virus.

“I guess we all should worry about it, but you can’t keep us closed down forever,” said Himes, who added that it’s impossible to keep social distance on his assembly line. “You work within 3 or 4 feet from everybody,” he said. “People right across from you, people right beside you.”

In line with White House guidelines announced last week, several states with Republican governors have begun restoring access to public spaces -- not just beaches and parks, but in states like Georgia, hair salons, gyms, bowling alleys, restaurants and movie theaters as well.

Health officials fear that such moves, if not carefully planned, could fuel a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Some companies that never closed offer a cautionary tale: Meat-packing plants across the Midwest have reported hundreds of coronavirus cases among their tightly quartered workforces. Several have shuttered in an attempt to stem the spread.

Above all else, executives will need to be flexible, said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. “You can have a set of plans, but those plans are going to have to be updated on a rolling basis,” he said. “The forecast is incredibly uncertain.”