The economy and the virus: Companies repurpose, change workplace rules

The outbreak of the coronavirus has dealt a shock to the global economy with unprecedented speed. Following are developments on Tuesday related to the global economy, the work place and the spread of the virus.



Less than a week after saying it planned to reopen five North American assembly plants, Ford has decided that those facilities will remain closed indefinitely. The announcement to reopen got a cool reception from the United Auto Workers union.

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The spread of the virus has begun to hit Detroit hard. The number of coronavirus cases in Michigan reached 6,498 Monday, an 18% increase, while deaths rose to 184 from 132. TCF Center in downtown Detroit soon will be turned into a 900-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients who are not critically ill.

SAFETY IN THE WORKPLACE: The workplace environment, for those companies that must have workers on location, is changing radically.

Walmart will soon be taking temperatures of its workers as they arrive for their shifts. The nation’s largest private employer is sending infrared thermometers to all locations, though that could take several weeks.

Any worker with a temperature of 100 degrees or more will be sent home, with pay, until they are fever-free for at least three days.

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Under pressure from workers, Walmart will be issuing masks and gloves to those who want them. Walmart said it has been following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have said those items would do little good for the healthy. Those guidelines are now under aggressive review by health officials.

“This is new territory,” said spokesman Dan Bartlett. “We are learning on an hour-by-hour basis.”

In places shuttered by the outbreak, many workers will be returning to new rules and safety precautions. Ford is working with the United Auto Workers union on new standards.

Included is a requirement that autoworkers workers “self-certify” online every day before work that they do not have any coronavirus symptoms. The company will verify the self-certification before letting them inside, it said.

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Facilities will be reconfigured so that workers remain six feet or more apart on the factory floor. There will be time between shifts for equipment to be sanitized and so that one shift of workers doesn’t cross paths with another, Ford said. Some work stations will be shielded from others, while some workers will be given protective gear depending on need, the company said.

AIRLINES: The Treasury Department is asking airlines seeking U.S. assistance to do so by Friday, and it wants to know how they will pay the government back.

The economic-relief bill passed last week gives the Treasury Secretary the power to take an equity stake in airlines that get taxpayer help. The law provides $25 billion for grants and $25 billion in loans or loan guarantees for passenger airlines.

The Treasury warned airlines that failing to apply by Friday may lead to delays. American Airlines has already said that it plans to seek $12 billion.

NEW PURPOSE: Luxury clothing companies, chemical producers, car makers and other companies continue to revamp production to meet new supply demands in the pandemic.

Dow, which typically does not list hand sanitizer among its products, is doing just that at a growing number of facilities because the raw materials are readily available to the chemical maker. The majority of the sanitizer will be donated to health systems and government agencies.

The company began making sanitizer at its plant in Stade, Germany. Those operations are being expanded at facilities in Auburn, Michigan; South Charleston, West Virginia; Seneffe, Belgium; and Hortolândia, Brazil. The Auburn site has the capacity to produce approximately 15,000 pounds of sanitizer a week, or nearly 30,000 eight-ounce bottles. Similar or larger volumes are expected to be produced at the other Dow locations.

Dow will produce hand sanitizer for approximately four weeks, then assess extending production based on raw material availability and market need.

Ford is repurposing a parts factory west of Detroit to make simple ventilators starting the week of April 20, and the safety measures will be tested at that plant, the company said.

HOME-COOKED IS KING: British supermarkets just had their busiest month in recorded history.

New figures released Tuesday by market research firm Kantar show that British grocery sales jumped by 20.6% in March compared with a year earlier, making it the fastest rate of growth on record. Grocery sales totaled 10.8 billion pounds ($13.3 billion) over the past four weeks, surpassing the level seen during the busy Christmas season. The average household bought the equivalent of five extra days of groceries.

While there was an element of panic buying, Kantar said demand was also higher overall as people made extra shopping trips to feed the demand for more meals at home.

Conagra is reporting “significantly elevated demand” as people stuff their pantries for the long haul.

The maker of Birds Eye, Healthy Choice, Slim Jim, Reddi-wip, Vlasic pickles and Chef Boyardee, said in the current quarter, shipments have increased approximately 50%.

The company also supplies the food service industry, which is under duress.

GATHERING MOSS: Visa is reporting a rapid slide in travel-related spending by cardholders. It’s also noticed a decline in spending on restaurants, entertainment and fuel, according to a regulatory filing. U.S. payments volume is down 4% for the month to date, with credit volume off 7%. Cross-border volume tumbled 19% for the period, on a constant dollar basis.

Carnival says it will lose money this year and on Tuesday it suspended dividend payments to conserve cash, according to a regulatory filing. The cruise operator has taken the unprecedented step of a complete shutdown of operations.