Day 6

'I don't want to die to build a damn minivan': Autoworker worries about workplace safety amid COVID-19

Kathy McKay has been an employee at the Stellantis Windsor Assembly Plant for over 25 years, but after living through almost a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, her frustrations have reached a boiling point.

Kathy McKay has been an employee at the Windsor Assembly Plant for over 25 years

An employee working on the assembly line with added safety precautions at FCA's Windsor Assembly Plant. (Submitted by FCA)

Kathy McKay has been an employee at the Stellantis Windsor Assembly Plant for over 25 years, but after living through almost a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, her frustrations have reached a boiling point. 

"It's just such a complex situation in there, and it's very difficult," she said. "I don't want to die to build a damn minivan, and I don't think anyone else should either."

Ever since employees returned to the plant in May 2020 — following a two-month-long temporary work suspension after Windsor-Essex officially recorded its first case of COVID-19 — McKay says she's been concerned about the health and safety of both herself and her fellow employees. 

"People were taking it seriously to a certain extent, some people just genuinely didn't believe that it was exactly happening the way it was," she said. 

"Everybody was staying as distant as they could, but … it's a really tough thing when you're so used to being so close to people and all of a sudden it feels foreign to you."

Kathy McKay has worked for Chrysler for over 25 years. Despite precautions, she says she's still worried about safety measures at the Stellantis Windsor Assembly Plant. (Submitted by Kathy McKay)

Safety measures in place, concerns remain

Though increased safety measures — including rearranging jobs so that employees remained distanced from one another, installing Plexiglas barriers at workstations, new separations at break tables and even daily employee screenings — were introduced, she says concerns remain. 

"Washing hands is a problematic thing, because the washrooms are, for the large part, not on the main floor where we work," McKay said. "They're upstairs … sometimes minutes away from your workstation, literally."

Still, McKay acknowledges that Stellantis management has taken clear steps to alleviate employee concerns — including providing extra break time "so that we don't pass each other too closely on the washroom stairs or end up lining up in the washroom on breaks, because that happens now."

At the same time, McKay said the company does inform workers when one of their employees has tested positive. 

"You'll get a phone call if somebody in your work cell … is COVID-19-positive, you get a phone call saying that you're not permitted to come into work."

McKay also acknowledged that production needs to continue — though she expressed hesitation about the essential nature of her work.

"You put six or seven people out of the plant that all know what the jobs are for each station, you're going to be risking production," she said. "But I think that our lives are a little bit more important than production. And I really do question why we're called essential workers at this point too."

Employees inside the Windsor Assembly Plant wearing protective face masks, as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19 (Submitted by FCA Canada)

Stellantis stands by health and safety measures

In a statement, a Stellantis spokesperson said the company has "a comprehensive, multi-layered program of health and safety measures in place to protect our employees."

"We know that the protocols and processes that have been implemented in our plants are preventing the spread of the virus when employees are at work," said Stellantis. 

"While we've had employees test positive, we continue to be aggressive in following recommended guidelines and we continue to encourage our employees to follow the same health and safety measures whenever they are out and about to protect the safe environments we have created inside our plants."

WATCH | Daily employee screening at FCA's Windsor Assembly Plant:

Daily employee screening at FCA's Windsor Assembly Plant

3 years ago
Duration 1:33
FCA Canada's head of Human Resources Jacqueline Oliva walks through the daily screening of auto employees at FCA's Windsor's Assembly Plant.

In a separate statement, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) — the region's public health agency — said the Ministry of Labour "is the lead agency for all workplace health and safety under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, especially for facilities that public health does not routinely inspect like a manufacturing facility."

"Public health takes a supportive and educational role primarily in support of the Ministry of Labour," said a WECHU spokesperson. 

"Throughout the pandemic, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has provided recommendations and guidance for all businesses in Windsor and Essex County. We've developed extensive information for workplaces and businesses on our website."

Unifor Local 444 — the labour group that represents employees at the Windsor Assembly Plant — declined to comment. 

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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