Auto plants across the South are hitting a wall with COVID vaccination rates among their workers. And heightened demand for cars has their assembly lines running full tilt. They’re eager to prevent any COVID-related downtime, but unsure how hard to push.
Vaccinations have slowed so much at General Motors’ manufacturing site in Spring Hill that plant manager Jeff Lamarche doesn’t feel good about asking the Maury County health department back out for a third round.
“They weren’t wanting to do it for onesy, twosies,” he says. “They were looking for a bigger event.”
Lamarche says the last time they came out, it was pretty slow, even though fewer than half of employees tell him they’ve been vaccinated on company surveys.
“The further you push it, you’re just not getting any more response rate. It’s maxed out. What do you do?” he asks. “You move on and say, ‘We’re all responsible adults.’”
GM has resisted turning to financial incentives, though at least one other automaker has gone that route. Toyota is offering every worker a $100 bonus when they send in a picture of their vaccination card.
Emily Lauder leads the effort across Toyota’s American plants.
“That’s how we’re tracking the percentages of folks that are vaccinated site by site,” she says.
The rates range from around 30% at the high end to less than 15% where Lauder is based, Toyota’s Mississippi plant. She says the rate of workers taking the vaccine mirrors that of the state they’re in — higher in Kentucky, much lower in Mississippi, for example.
With car sales humming, it’s not a question of whether the company could afford up the ante on the incentives. They’ve contemplated giving away cars, like a plantwide sweepstakes. But they’re torn.
“Some of the other incentives we’ve considered, we’re still struggling with how far to go,” Lauder says.
Plus, there’s employee morale to consider — which is a big deal at a car plant with thousands of workers.
“You go and offer an incentive to someone who has not [had the vaccine yet], and then the people who already got it say, ‘Well, what about me?’” says Robert Burns, who leads human resources for Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, Ala.
While the Hyundai plant hasn’t sweetened the pot for its 3,000 workers, it has tried to make it easy to get the shot in a partnership with a local health system. It’s tried to convince workers of the perks of losing masks, being able to sit together at lunch and no more prepackaged food in the cafeteria.
“There’s things we do that we’d like to get back to some degree of normal, and that’s the rationale for it,” Burns says.
It’s working for Hyundai, with better than half of employees immunized. And last month, Burns says the plant had just one positive COVID case.