As union officials grew concerned about factory safety, the three big U.S. automakers announced in March that they would shutter their North American operations, sending home roughly 150,000 workers.
But with a pandemic raging, a handful of General Motors workers have labored on — including several dozen at a plant in Bedford, Ind., that makes chassis for the Chevrolet Corvette, one of G.M.’s most iconic and expensive vehicles.
A G.M. spokesman, confirming the accounts of workers, said the factory’s continuing operation was aimed at reducing a chassis shortage and helping resume Corvette production more quickly once the company reopens an assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky.
The spokesman said that the Bedford plant was running three shifts a day — with about 20 people per shift, down from about 250 hourly workers normally — and that the workers had volunteered for the assignment, at their usual wage.
The company said Wednesday that it planned to “restart the majority of manufacturing operations” in North America on May 18.
The exceptions to the broader shutdown shine a light on the sometimes murky debate over which economic activities should continue during the coronavirus pandemic, and how much discretion employers should have when making such decisions.
Amazon employees have questioned whether the company should be shipping items like toys and headphones. (Amazon has lowered demand for less essential items by displaying longer delivery times for them.) Workers at craft stores like Hobby Lobby have disputed whether they are essential, as have those at some manufacturing plants, like candy factories. And employees at a variety of businesses, from hair salons to dental offices, have expressed concern over decisions to reopen as states lift stay-at-home orders.
Still, few employers have asked rank-and-file workers to punch in while taking such prominent efforts to suspend their operations.
The G.M. spokesman identified two U.S. facilities, aside from the Bedford plant, where the company had continued production: one in Arlington, Texas, where workers returned for about 10 days to finish building a sport utility vehicle before the plant changes over to a new model, which had previously been reported, and another in Lockport, N.Y., where workers began making parts this week to service existing vehicles.
Corvette parts production in Bedford, which primarily supports new vehicles rather than repairs, has been running at some level since March and went to three shifts in April, according to the spokesman, though the making of parts there for other models has been suspended.
Each of the three big U.S. automakers is relying on a small number of workers during the shutdown, said Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the United Automobile Workers union, and the union has cooperated as long as the work is voluntary and adequate safety measures are in place.
He added that the workers were typically asked to help retool plants so that they could operate more safely after reopening, or to work on functions like the distribution of parts for repairs. G.M. has also brought back about 1,000 workers to make ventilators at a Kokomo, Ind., plant.
Since the initial closings, the U.A.W. has opposed what it considers to be premature efforts to recall workers generally, and it has reacted tepidly to announcements by Fiat Chrysler and G.M. that they will resume production this month.
“As for the start date, the companies contractually make that decision, and we all knew this day would come,” the U.A.W. president, Rory Gamble, said in a statement in response to the Fiat Chrysler announcement on Tuesday.
Though it is unclear when Corvette assembly will resume, outside analysts have underscored the importance of the car — whose most recent model typically sells for $60,000 to $80,000 — to the company’s prospects.
A Morgan Stanley report in November predicted that Corvette sales would bring in roughly 2 percent of G.M.’s revenue in 2020, an estimated $3.3 billion, and put the car’s profit margin at 16.5 percent, about twice the company’s average in North America. (The analysts later revised their estimates to account for the pandemic’s impact.)
The Morgan Stanley analysts said the Corvette could be critical to G.M.’s longer-term strategy if the company could take advantage of the car’s brand name and customer loyalty in other lines of business, such as B.E.V.s, or battery electric vehicles.
Corvette is “more than a needle-mover for G.M.,” the analysts wrote. “We’re looking at the potential of a hypothetical Corvette brand expansion, into S.U.V. and B.E.V.s, as a way for G.M. to help fund the transition to electric.”
The report predicted that Corvette sales could increase to about 100,000 in 2029, from 40,000 this year, if the company developed a Corvette S.U.V. — a step other high-end sports car manufacturers have taken and one that a former G.M. vice chairman, Bob Lutz, has urged. (The company declined to comment on future vehicles.)
Since the Morgan Stanley report, however, the Corvette has faced a series of setbacks. After years in development, the newest Corvette Stingray was scheduled to begin assembly in December. But the car did not start coming off production lines until February, a delay that a company email to dealers attributed to last year’s 40-day strike. The email was posted on the website Corvette Forum.
By March, not long after G.M. began assembling the cars, demand proved so high that the company stopped accepting orders. It redirected new orders to the 2021 model, which the company said it planned to begin accepting in late May.
The G.M. spokesman said the shortage of parts from Bedford was a problem because they were used at a key point in Corvette assembly.
Two G.M. employees in Bedford, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about company operations, said the shortage had to do with errors during the new production process. The company spokesman attributed the shortage to the gradual ramp-up typical for the introduction of a new vehicle.
The spokesman said the Bedford plant had taken several steps to ensure workers’ safety, such as daily temperature checks, provision of masks and extensive social distancing measures, such as barring more than one person from sitting on a locker room bench at once. Many of these measures have been carried out more widely at the G.M. plant making ventilators in Kokomo.
One of the Bedford workers said he was not worried about safety because he primarily worked alone pouring hot metal and could stay at least six feet from co-workers unless he needed to consult a supervisor. The employee said that he had resumed working in late March, shortly after the plant closed, and that he had been at the factory for several weeks since then, though not every week.
The second worker said he had declined an offer to return to the plant, partly out of safety concerns.
“They wanted me to go to work, they needed someone to pour metal,” the worker said. “I chose not to go down. I did not want to risk getting sick.”