Ventilators represent a critical need as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, and local workers at General Motors are stepping up in the nation’s time of need.
On March 27, GM and Ventec Life Systems announced the companies would partner to produce VOCSN critical care ventilators in the automobile manufacturer’s Kokomo facility. Over the years, the GM workforce in the City of Firsts had dwindled from thousands to about 180 where it stood recently before the plant was shut down as a precaution against spreading COVID-19. The ventilator production is expected to boost the workforce operating out of the Kokomo facility to about 1,000.
According to United Auto Workers Local 292 President Matt Collins, efforts are underway to prepare workers for their new task, and ventilators should be rolling off the lines in the coming weeks.
“I’ve been doing my job as the president for almost 10 years now, and that’s been my sole goal since we started is to try and get some work in here … When I first got those bids I was like, ‘Great, we finally got some work,’” said Collins. “Then you think about it for about 30 seconds, and it’s like this is way bigger than that though. It’s great for the community, and it’s great for the country. To be part of something like that is an incredible opportunity. It’s awesome.”
Of the 1,000 workers being brought into the Kokomo facility, Collins said the first priority for rehiring went to the 180 local employees who already held positions with GM in Kokomo. The second priority would go to Marion GM employees who were laid off when factories ceased production during the pandemic. After that, outside workers would be hired for ventilator production. This could last into 2021
Collins said ventilator production was a big boost to the local facility, which missed out on new work on a wider scale after the last round of negotiations between the UAW and GM. Last year, local GM workers joined GM UAW workers nationwide in striking during negotiations. While a contract eventually was ratified between the entities, Local 292 did not approve the contract, with leadership at the time citing a lack of new work as a reason for opposition from the dwindling workforce.
“It looks like the ventilator project itself, at the very least, will go a little over a year,” said Collins. “We’re talking about doing a few other things with other models. We’ll see. There’s other models, and there’s parts inside that we could possibly maybe look at. Our whole goal right now, because the way we shrunk, is we think we could be a player in the electric car parts business. But we have to make it there. So I needed some in between work, so this works out great.”
Collins said preexisting clean rooms, which were required for medical equipment production by the FDA, were the reason the Kokomo facility was chosen for ventilator production. According to a press release issued by GM and Ventec Life Systems, the Kokomo plant could produce as many as 10,000 critical care ventilators a month, with the potential to scale up further.
As of last week, workers in the Kokomo facility were maintaining proper social distancing, spread throughout the 2.6 million-square-foot facility learning the processes needed to craft the ventilators. Whereas before the plant supported the production of precision electrical components, Collins said the workers’ new tasks are a departure from previous methods.
“It’s a totally different environment and everything,” said Collins. “So instead of a moving line it’s more of a manual process. It’s not as much technology-driven. It’s more putting these things together by hand. That’s the way they do it where they’re at, and that’s the way we’ll do it here. We may make some improvements in the future, but everything has to meet the FDA guidelines.”
All the while, a variety of safety precautions are in place to protect workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With no vaccine or medication available to curb the virus’ spread from person to person, preventing infection is the primary means to combat the virus. Collins said each building within the facility is limited to a single entry point. Everyone on the premises is required to wear masks, and every individual entering the facility is checked for a fever before being admitted. There’s also a host of cleaning procedures in place as directed by the FDA.
Collins said he’s confident in those procedures, with worker safety being a priority at the plant.
“The ironic thing is I had most of my right lung taken out a couple years back, so I’m one of the more at-risk people there is,” said Collins. “But I still feel pretty good about it.”
With a critical need existing in the nation for ventilators to treat COVID-19 victims, the union president said Local 292 members were more than willing to not only fill a vital role during the pandemic but also prove that the local facility has a lot to offer going forward.
“We’re here and willing to help,” said Collins. “This is what we’ve been asking for the whole time. And we’re there, and we’re going to prove to everybody why we should stay open.”