This week in Belvidere, autoworkers are returning to the assembly line for the first time since Fiat Chrysler shut down operations in March amid the coronavirus outbreak.
WNIJ spoke with William Vergara, an autoworker at the Belvidere Assembly Plants going back to work this week. Vergara says he's been taking every precaution when it comes to social distancing.
"Yeah, like we've been taking 100% serious. Our kids haven't left the house in over two months. If we go out it's like to pick up groceries or anything like that, but yeah, we we've been 100% social distancing," he said.
Part of the reason Vergara’s been so strict is because his wife had baby a couple months back and he says he’s worried. He says the pandemic, the quarantine, and the shutdown caught him off guard.
"I didn't know. I didn't think it was going to be this bad," Vergara said. "I figured it was going to have some impact. Me and my wife had just had a baby as well. So we were super concerned, you know, just because, having an infant but we never thought it was going to be this bad."
Something to keep in mind is that some of the workers at Chrysler have been off the clock longer than the pandemic lockdown.
"I was actually at home, we were on a layoff at the time. They were trying to do some work, I believe. At Chrysler, so we're already off work. And then we found out we're gonna be out longer," he said.
Before the pandemic-related closure, Fiat Chrysler paused production at the Belvidere plant to install new equipment. Vergara assumed the regularly scheduled maintenance might last a month, tops. It turned out to be much longer.
Vergara really likes his job at Chrysler. And he says he understands: It’s been a long time and maybe this is just how things go and it’s time to reopen. But he is worried.
"You know, there's a lot of people. That's close to 2000 people there per shift. You just don't know how well everybody else has been quarantining," Vergara says. "So I don't know. I just wish we had a little longer, you know?"
WNIJ reached out to Fiat Chrysler about the kind of precautions they’re putting in place to protect workers and their families. Fiat Chrysler spokesperson Jodi Tinson says there are general safety protocols workers must follow.
To get through the doors of the assembly plant, workers first have to complete a daily health risk assessment, which includes temperature checks and completing a self-screened questionnaire.
Then there’s thermal imaging to confirm temperatures and Fiat Chrysler says they will require all workers to wear masks and safety glasses that they will provide.
The Belvidere plant is just one of many across the country trying to reopen with still many unknowns about containing the virus. Ford Motor Company temporarily closed their Chicago Heights plant due to a case of COVID-19. That’s the fourth plant Ford closed since they reopened on May 18th.
Employees like Vergara are heading back into that unknown, but ready to work.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.