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FCA Tipton Transmission Plant on Monday March 5, 2020. During this last week of March the plant is shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local workers at the Fiat Chrysler Automobile plants in Kokomo and Tipton are preparing for major changes to the workplace as the company prepares to begin gradually reopening plants in the U.S. next month.

Rick Ward, president of the United Auto Workers Local 685, which represents the plants, said in a video posted Sunday that because of the COVID-19 outbreak, employees should anticipate that “our work places are going to change, and they’re going to be big changes.”

He said that includes workers being required to take their temperature every day, two-hours prior to coming to work, to ensure they don’t have a fever. Ward said FCA will supply a thermometer to workers who need one.

Employees must also fill out a health-screening questionnaire every day, answering whether they have experienced a fever, cough, sore throat, diarrhea or had difficulty breathing in the last 14 days.

Other questions ask if workers had a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher in the last two hours; whether they have traveled by airplane in the last 14 days; if they had been in close contact with a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19, or someone waiting on test results; and if workers have been quarantined in the last 14 days.

If workers answer yes to any of the questions, they cannot come to work and must call to report their absence.

“Just be honest,” Ward told employees in the video posted on the union’s website. “If you have to answer yes, just be honest as best as possible.”

Ward said inside the plants, workers will be given two masks and required to wear one of them throughout their entire shift. He said seating capacity at the tables in break rooms will be cut in half to keep workers away from each other.

“There are a variety of things that are changing, and we’re just going to have to deal with it,” he said.

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The parking lot at the FCA Kokomo Transmission Plant is empty parking lot on Monday March 23. The plant will remain closed for at least through early May.

The new safety measures come after FCA last Monday announced it intends to progressively restart its U.S. manufacturing facilities beginning May 4.

The FCA plants in Kokomo and Tipton closed on March 18 after all of Detroit’s Big Three automakers agreed to temporarily shut down operations at all North American factories due to worker fears about the coronavirus.

Ward said a specific reopen date for the local factories is still to be determined as the UAW works with the company to come up with a plan to restart production.

“At this point, it’s still up in the air,” he said. “There are a lot of things we need to work on with the company.”

FCA said last week that during the current pause in production, the company has worked with government officials and the UAW to implement new procedures to “certify the daily wellness of the workforce.”

That includes redesigning work stations to maintain proper social distancing, and expanding the “already extensive cleaning protocols” at all its manufacturing locations.

Ward said even with the extensive cleaning of the plants, some workers are worried about coming back as the number COVID-19 cases continues to grow across the state.

“I know that people want to get back to work, and we want everybody back at work,” he said. “We want to be selling a lot of cars. But there’s nervousness across the board; not just from the UAW people, but from the salaried people as well.”

Ward said Local 685 will hold a podcast meeting on April 21 to update members on new policies, and also take questions about returning to work. He said union leadership will submit those questions to the company and then relay answers back to the union membership.

“I think the more questions we ask, the safer we will be,” he said.

Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman said FCA has worked closely with local, state and national officials during the coronavirus pandemic, and if things continue to improve, reopening next month “may very well be reasonable.”

“I have full confidence in FCA, that when the final return to work date is determined, they will take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their employees and our community,” Wyman said. “I appreciate the leadership of Fiat Chrysler and the UAW, as they persevere through these difficult times.”

A worker at Kokomo’s Transmission Plant was the first-known case of someone testing positive for COVID-19 inside a U.S. auto plant, and was also the first case of the virus in Howard County.

A worker at the Transmission Plant ended up dying from the virus, marking the county’s first virus-related death.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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