By Ben Foldy
General Motors Co. is taking the unusual step of tapping salaried workers to keep the lines running at its pickup-truck factory near St. Louis as the company continues to struggle with staffing the plant amid pandemic-related absences.
The Detroit auto maker has asked white-collared employees to voluntarily fill in on jobs that are normally staffed by unionized workers, while it works to make up for production lost this spring during a nearly two-month factory shutdown, a company spokesman said Tuesday.
The United Auto Workers union, which represents 3,800 hourly employees at the Wentzville, Mo., factory, has pushed back against the move, arguing that it violates the company's labor contract requiring assembly-line jobs be filled only by union members. A UAW spokesman said the union's local chapter has filed a grievance with GM.
As many companies attempt to resume operations across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic is continuing to cause disruptions, leading to bumpy reopenings efforts in many industries. In some cases, businesses have brought workers back only to send them home again after infections surged anew.
Other employers have taken unprecedented steps in trying to prevent cases from spreading among workers, while also trying to convince them it is safe to return. For instance, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have isolated their players in "bubbles" designed to limit potential exposure to the virus.
Earlier this summer, as car companies worked to restore U.S. vehicle production, some factories wrestled with higher-than-expected absences as workers took time off to deal with sick relatives and child care challenges or stayed home worried about contracting the virus.
Despite this, the U.S. auto industry has largely managed to stay open this summer with few major disruptions. For the most part, executives say their plants are operating at or near pre-pandemic levels, even though many have had to lean heavily on temporary workers to manage staffing shortfalls.
GM's Missouri plant, which makes some of the company's higher-margin pickup trucks and vans, has wrestled with staffing shortages since it reopened in May.
Both GM and union officials have said that worker absences are higher than normal because of the pandemic's impact on surrounding communities. Local union leaders at the plant have also criticized the company's response to workers testing positive for the virus and in June asked GM to close the plant temporarily, which the company declined to do.
The Detroit Free Press first reported GM's use of salaried workers at the Missouri factory and the UAW's objections to the move.
In July, GM said it was cutting a third shift at the plant because it had too many assembly-line workers taking time off. It later reversed that decision, pledging to restore staffing levels by hiring temporary workers and transferring employees from other plants. Some of those workers are expected to relocate from a GM plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., where the company, facing weaker demand for the models it builds there, is laying off a shift of workers.
The white-collar employees working at the pickup-truck plant are intended to be there only temporarily to help GM meet stronger-than-expected demand for the models it builds there, the GM spokesman said.
The company has unionized workers it expects to transfer to the Missouri plant from other factories, as well as temporary workers lined up to fill vacancies, but it needs time to train those people, the spokesman said.
At this point, the company doesn't know how long it will need the salaried workers to fill in, the spokesman said, adding that the situation at the Missouri factory was a special case.
Like other car companies, GM continues to run low on certain models, particularly the high-price pickup trucks that drive the bulk of its profits.
Dealership stockpiles were depleted during a monthslong shutdown this spring, and GM has yet to fully replenish inventory, especially with many buyers favoring larger trucks and SUVs over sedans.
Write to Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com