MACON, Ga.—The United Steelworkers and company officials are at odds over COVID-19 conditions at a Kumho Tire USA Inc. plant in Georgia.
While the union is alleging COVID-19 safety failures at the Macon plant, the company pushed back and said the union has not done its part to encourage workers to wear masks.
The dispute is just the latest development in what has now become a years-long focus on union organization at the plant.
The USW claims Kumho failed to distribute masks, supply sanitizer or take other common-sense steps to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at the Macon location. It also alleges the company refuses to regularly and thoroughly disinfect the factory or give details about the number of workers that have tested positive for COVID-19.
"Kumho's disregard for its workers' welfare during this deadly pandemic is disappointing but not surprising," Daniel Flippo, USW District 9 director, said in a statement.
Kumho claims some workers who support unionization at the plant are not doing their part to protect themselves and their fellow workers.
"Unfortunately, some employees who have indicated they support the union refuse to wear a face mask and follow CDC basic precautionary guidelines implemented by the company. The union has failed to show its support and encourage Kumho employees to wear masks and comply with CDC guidelines that can slow the spread of the virus, which is disappointing," said a company response from plant Human Resources Director Keith Lolley.
The USW listed a variety of concerns with the company's handling of its facility.
"On July 10-11, the company claimed it would shut down the entire facility for sanitizing, but then forced two departments to stay on rather than clear everyone out for the appropriate cleaning," the USW said.
Other alleged problems include: empty hand sanitizer and soap containers; inconsistent enforcement of physical distancing at the plant; and certain sanitizing products lacking labels and causing skin irritation in some, the union claimed.
"Several departments require multiple employees work closely side-by-side," the union claimed.
Face masks also were distributed by team leaders who touched them before passing them out. That made some employees worried about contamination, the USW further alleged.
Kumho is following guidelines from both local authorities and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the statement released by Lolley.
"Kumho decisions related to the coronavirus are being guided by the CDC and other local authorities. Kumho has encouraged employees since March to take individual responsibility and wear face coverings and requires employees who cannot social distance to wear a face mask," the company said.
Kumho said COVID-19 efforts include employee education, a tele-medicine program, installation of hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soap throughout the facility, social distancing and room occupancy limits in high-traffic areas.
Other precautions involve increased cleaning, travel restrictions, a new paid time off policy for COVID-19 related absences and plant shutdowns for cleaning, temperature checks, self-assessments and mask requirements if employees cannot social distance. The plant also has had shutdowns to conduct extra cleaning, Kumho said.
The tire plant has been open since 2016, and the first union vote took place the following year. That 2017 election saw the defeat of union representation, but an administrative law judge later found company misconduct.
An subsequent election saw workers vote 141 to 137 in favor of joining the USW in 2019, but 13 additional ballots were challenged.
The USW said in a statement that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the 13 ballots should be counted, The counting of those challenged ballots is scheduled for Aug. 11, the company said.
The facility had its first COVID-19 case on June 29 when a contractor tested positive. A large portion of the company's work force resides in Bibb and Houston counties, areas with the two highest number of cases in Middle Georgia, the company said.
The plant has six known employees testing positive for the virus, and contractors' employees have seven positive cases. Another temporary staffing agency worker also has tested positive, the company said. "Through the contact tracing process, all positive test results have originated from contact with others away from the plant," Kumho said.
USW District 9 Staff Representative Alex Perkins sees the situation differently, however.
"The company's callous failure to protect them from COVID-19 shows just how urgently they need union protections," he said in a statement.