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White Collar Workers Put On Assembly Line As COVID-19 Shrinks Worker Population


Imagine being an accountant for an automaker crunching numbers from the comfort of your home. And then, suddenly, you're reassigned to the assembly line during a pandemic because there are not enough workers. That's what's happening to some white-collar workers at an automotive plant in Ohio. From member station WOSU, Paige Pfleger reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: In Marysville, just northwest of Columbus, sits a massive 4-million-square-foot Honda plant. It's where thousands of workers make Accords and Acuras. And lately, that's become a problem. So now employees from other departments, like accounting and purchasing, are being required to swap typing up reports and taking meetings for working on suspension systems or installing shock absorbers. One employee who spoke with NPR anonymously out of fear of losing his job says in the more than five years he spent with the company, he has never seen anything quite like it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Regardless of whether or not you wanted to, you could be subject to it. They took volunteers first, but my understanding was they didn't receive many volunteers for this activity. For them, they did it mandatory.

PFLEGER: According to emails, all departments had a quota and had to provide employees to work the assembly line. While a Honda spokesman declined to talk to NPR for this story, he confirmed that they're asking office workers to step into production roles temporarily while they try to attract more workers. Honda cites several reasons for the shortage. Key is the number of employees on leave because they've contracted COVID or are quarantined after exposure. It also says the extra $600 unemployment benefit was making it harder to attract fill-ins. Kristin Dziczek is with the Center for Automotive Research and says Honda isn't the only company facing this dilemma.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: I think it's a broader issue and not just Honda. All manufacturers, particularly automakers and suppliers, are trying to meet production with much higher levels of absenteeism and illness and sick leave and isolation and quarantine.

PFLEGER: In Ohio alone, there are now more than 13,000 manufacturing jobs open. Dziczek says it is common for companies to ask salaried employees to step into production roles during disruptions like strikes. But Brian Rothenberg of the United Auto Workers says pulling white-collar workers would not happen at a unionized plant.

BRIAN ROTHENBERG: First, we have unionized temp workers to fill in. And then if there is not enough of those, other people who are laid off in a nearby area.

PFLEGER: Rothenberg says it can be difficult and possibly dangerous to work in assembly line without significant training.

But Laine Mears, who researches automotive manufacturing at Clemson University, says there are jobs on the line that can be done without extensive training.

LAINE MEARS: Typically, you're not going to put those people on safety critical types of processes, and you're not going to put them on processes that require a lot of training and experience.

PFLEGER: The Honda staffer NPR spoke to said employees do not get any training until the day they show up. Many are also concerned about working closely together during the pandemic. Many of the reassigned employees have been working from home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was not very happy about that because I've really tried hard to socially distance and keep away from other people during this. So I felt like being forced to go in to the floor where I know people have had COVID and tested positive for it.

PFLEGER: He estimates that each time a worker on the assembly line gets sick, anywhere from 40 to 70 other workers have to quarantine. Honda confirms an increase in employee COVID-19 cases across its North America facilities, so much so that some manufacturing locations have had to reduce shifts and deny vacations to have enough workers on the factory floor.

MEARS: For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Pfleger
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