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The new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have interrupted our lives in countless ways. Our coverage details the medical issues surrounding coronavirus -- and the way it's changing the Midwest.

In COVID Crisis, Honda Plant Puts Office Workers On Assembly Line

The nation’s automakers are scrambling to keep assembly lines staffed during the COVID crisis. At a Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio, that means calling on office workers to move to the line. And that has triggered anxiety among some workers.

A general manager at the plant laid out the move in an email to employees in accounting, purchasing, and research and development. The email, dated July 23, was obtained by WOSU in Columbus.  

One employee, who spoke with WOSU anonymously out of fear of losing his job, says he's never seen anything like it in the more than five years he’s spent with Honda.

"Regardless of whether or not you wanted to, you could be subject to it," he says. "They took volunteers first, but my understanding was they didn’t receive many volunteers for this activity, so then they made it mandatory."

Departments were required to provide a certain number of employees to work on the factory floor.

A Honda spokesman who confirmed the move says the company has done something similar before. "Due to strong customer demand for our products and the need to carefully manage production during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing some temporary staffing issues that require support from associates who do not typically work in production," the spokesman said in an email.

The general manager's email cites several reasons for the worker shortage, including employees being on leave due to contracting COVID-19 or quarantining after exposure.

It also says the extra $600 federal unemployment benefit adopted in the early weeks of the pandemic is making it hard to find temporary manufacturing workers. Those benefits expired recently and Congress has yet to renew them.

This shortage of workers is not unique to Honda. Other auto factories have found themselves having to fill empty slots on the floor. 

Brian Rothenberg of the United Auto Workers says pulling white collar workers onto an assembly line would not happen at a unionized plant.

"First, we have unionized temp workers to fill in," Rothenberg says. "And if there’s not enough of those, other people who are laid off from the nearby area, and then a larger area, and then a larger area, and call them back to work."

Rothenberg says it would be extremely difficult for office workers to work the assembly line without proper training. "You have to have some basic training, health and safety training, and it’s a very skilled repetitive job that you have to know what you’re doing."

The Honda staffer told WOSU that employees do not get trained until they show up to the line. 

In addition to the limited training, some employees are concerned about working so close together on the assembly line during a pandemic. The reassigned employees had previously been working from home, or in office locations with a lot of space — situations that aren’t possible on the line.

"I was not very happy about that because I’ve really tried hard to socially distance and keep away from other people during this," the Honda staffer says. "So I felt like being forced to go in to the floor where I know people have had COVID and tested positive for it, I felt very uncomfortable with that."

He estimates that each time a worker on the assembly line gets sick, they have been in contact with more than 40 other workers.

"They’re losing so many people each week — because of either testing positive or being in contact with someone who tested positive — that they can’t backfill the positions quickly enough for all the shortages," he says. "So they’re having to grab people from anywhere they can in order to keep the line going."

When the coronavirus pandemic first flared up in March, Honda paused production at its U.S. factories. It restarted the lines two months later.

Honda confirms the company has recently seen an increase in employee COVID-19 cases across North America. A spokesman says that some manufacturing locations had to reduce shifts and vacation to have enough workers on the factory floor.

"With tens of thousands of associates building products in America, we are not unique in having members of our team affected by the COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesman says. 

But Honda says the increase in cases is not due to a lack of protections. The company says it conducts daily fever scans, requires face masks and even has in-house testing capabilities.

Jamie Karl of the Ohio Manufacturers Association says auto makers have had a long time to figure out how to keep workers safe in Ohio.

"Manufacturing never shut down," Karl says. "At least 75% of our members operated the entire time through out those first weeks and months of the pandemic, so they were the ones actually establishing the safety practices, the best practices."

Karl says there are more than 13,000 available manufacturing jobs in the state. Plants like Honda needed workers before the pandemic struck, and this spike in COVID cases has only intensified that demand.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.