Coronavirus is gutting US car sales, and autoworkers are worried

With auto plants shut as part of virus containment measures, many autoworkers wonder if they’ll have jobs go back to.

US auto workers
United States automakers reported the sharpest plunge in new vehicle sales in a decade for the month of March as COVID-19 threw millions out of work and decimated consumer demand [File: Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

As the United States braces for what President Donald Trump warns will be “a very, very deadly period”, with deaths from coronavirus expected to peak over the next two weeks, down south in Montgomery, Alabama, Joyce Oswald, 52, is feeling anxious about the future.

“Everybody is hearing about death all over the world,” she told Al Jazeera.

But it’s not just the threat to physical health she fears. Oswald is deeply concerned about the toll the coronavirus pandemic could take on her family’s financial wellbeing.

Her husband Charles and her two brothers-in-law work with about 3,000 other people at the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama plant on the outskirts of Montgomery. On March 18, the company temporarily suspended production to clean its facilities after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and then reopened to essential workers only.

Charles Oswald, who fixes robots in engineering maintenance, was among the essential workers tapped to stay on the job – until March 27, when the company sent him home, too.

Thousands of people working on assembly lines, touching the same parts, and sharing restrooms and cafeterias is a recipe for disaster. As is the case in China and Europe, factories across the US have shuttered in an effort to contain the highly contagious coronavirus.  

Hyundai now says it will reopen the plant on April 13. The company fully compensated its 3,000 employees, including members of the Oswald clan, through April 3, and gave its workers the option to use paid vacation time through April 9.

Oswald said her family appreciates what the company has done for its workers. But when the plant reopens, she wonders whether production will be scaled back substantially in the months ahead.

US automakers reported the sharpest plunge in new vehicle sales in a decade for the month of March as COVID-19 threw millions out of work and decimated consumer demand.

Hyundai’s US march sales plunged 43 percent from a year earlier.

The longer lockdowns last, the longer consumers are likely to sit on their wallets rather than shell out for things like new cars.

Oswald worries whether her husband, in-laws and all their coworkers will have jobs in the coming months.

“How long can they pay people when vehicles aren’t being made?” she asked.

Government lifeline

Coronavirus is known to have infected nearly 370,000 people in the US, and claimed more than 10,500 lives in the country, according to John Hopkins University.

To stem the spread of the virus, entire sectors of the US economy have shut down, and people have been asked to retreat indoors, dealing a severe blow to businesses, workers and the economy. 

Last month, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.2 trillion virus relief package to shore up businesses great and small – as well as workers and state and local governments – against the financial fallout.

The law includes several measures to help workers including one-off payments of up to $1,200 for the majority of Americans, $2,400 for couples and $500 for each child. It also dramatically bolsters unemployment benefits, and includes a $600 federal top-up to state payouts for up to four months, an extra 13 weeks of unemployment for those eligible, and for the first time, the extension of jobless benefits to gig workers, the self-employed and contractors.

“Factory workers are going to be helped out substantially by this,” Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, told Al Jazeera. “The goal is to make a lot of people who have lost work as whole as possible.”

But Oswald does not yet know if the government lifeline will be enough to make her family whole, because the automotive plant’s future production is still an open question.

“I am worried if it lasts too long we will not have health insurance,”  she said.

Charles Oswald is a contract worker, not a full-time, salaried employee. The company pays a large portion of his health insurance, for which the Oswalds pay $90 out of pocket each month. But if the plant shuts down and he loses his job, the family would lose their health coverage. 

“Health insurance is tied to employment, and without a job, workers will need to deal with health insurance,” Sandra Black, professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera. “This isn’t something workers should have to worry about during a public health crisis, and it highlights a more fundamental weakness in our system.”

Health benefits are just part of a larger concern for the Oswalds, who worry whether 54-year-old Charles would be able to find another job if it came to that. “If this company leaves Alabama, we would barely have any jobs,” says Joyce. “So many people would be homeless.”

Automakers General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co, Fiat Chrysler and Tesla are retrofitting some factories to produce medical items such as ventilators and masks in the war against coronavirus.

Oswald hopes Hyundai may have similar plans for its Alabama plant, though none have been announced. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

How long can they pay people when vehicles aren't being made?

by Joyce Oswald, wife of autoworker

‘The scariest part’

Anwar, an auto factory worker in Detroit, Michigan who asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname, has also been laid off as his factory closes temporarily to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Detroit has emerged as a hot zone for coronavirus infections. For Anwar, the pandemic has already been a source of personal grief. He said a good friend who was 30 years old with underlying health conditions died in New York City after succumbing to COVID-19.

Anwar told Al Jazeera that he is financially stable as long as he collects unemployment benefits, but nevertheless still fears for his future.

“The scariest part is the unknown,” he said.  “Change is inevitable, but it’s the uncertainty of where this could go.” 

As long as big questions hang over the auto industry, economist Stevenson warns that factory workers should brace for what could be a tough year or two ahead.

“The government is going to try to get them cash so they’re not feeling the pain today, but what they can’t change is that there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead of all of us,” she said.  

Source: Al Jazeera