Stellantis’s 23 percent absentee tabulation includes unscheduled off days, vacation and sick days, as well as workers who arrived late. Just counting unplanned absences, the number is 11 percent, according to a person familiar with the matter. The UAW says Stellantis is exaggerating the no-show problem by counting vacation and medical leave. Higher wages and more paid time off would improve attendance, the union argues.
Absenteeism is a longstanding challenge in the auto industry, a consequence of long hours, irregular shifts and repetitive motion that exacts a physical toll on workers. Over the past three years, Covid-19, parts shortages and a tight labor market have also had automakers struggling to meet demand for new vehicles.
Ford Motor Co., which spends about $1 billion more a year on labor than General Motors and Stellantis, believes it can address absenteeism in contract talks and doesn’t see the issue as its top priority, according to people familiar with the company’s bargaining strategy who asked for anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Neither Ford nor GM would disclose absenteeism rates.
While all three automakers have been exchanging economic proposals with the UAW as talks gain steam, they were still far apart on key issues like wages as of Tuesday.
“As with any negotiation, each party’s proposals can change over time as discussions continue to find common ground. The final agreement often looks different from where each party started,” said Stellantis spokesperson Shawn Morgan.
The absenteeism fight is one of several thorny issues in the contract talks that reflect competing visions for American auto jobs.
Tavares, who has made Stellantis the most profitable of the Detroit 3 in part by tightly managing expenses, wants an expanded pool of lower-paid workers as he navigates the transition to electric vehicles. The Portuguese executive says EVs will cost 40 percent more to make than combustion cars, a burden he can’t pass to consumers.
Ahead of his first bargaining face-off with the UAW, Tavares railed against the “brutality” of stricter emissions rules, according to Fain.
Fain, who worked at Fiat Chrysler for nearly two decades and became president of the UAW by a narrow margin this spring, wants to restore wages and benefits lost in the 2008 financial crisis.
Most car manufacturers use temporary workers to cover vacations or ramp up for a vehicle launch. In the past decade, some Detroit automakers have increasingly turned to temps while offering buyouts to older, more expensive employees, in an attempt to close a cost gap with foreign brands.
Foreign automakers lean heavily on temporary labor at their U.S. plants, which aren’t unionized, and enforce attendance rules more strictly so unplanned absenteeism is lower, said Dennis Cuneo, a former Toyota Motor Corp. executive who helped set up its U.S. manufacturing base.
At Stellantis, temporary workers start at $15.78 an hour. They have no guaranteed path to a full-time production job, which starts at $18.04 and tops out at $31.77 after eight years. Ford and GM temps start at $16.67 an hour, and the companies are required to convert them to full time after a certain period.
Full-time workers at Stellantis start out with at least a week, or 40 hours, of vacation time each year. Temps, also known as supplemental workers, are eligible for two days of paid time off and three days unpaid time off, subject to staffing needs, after they’ve worked about four months. After a year, temporary workers are entitled to a week of paid time off and three days of unpaid time.
Among the Detroit 3, Stellantis has the highest proportion of temporary employees, accounting for about 12 percent of workers, according to people familiar with the matter. The temp rate at GM is about 10 percent, and about 3 percent at Ford, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic information.
Stellantis’s plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., near Detroit, where roughly 5,000 hourly workers make the Ram 1500 pickup, the company’s top-selling vehicle in the US, is a microcosm of its labor tension. Stellantis has eliminated more than 400 positions there this year, and laid off about 170 people since May, the result of efficiency studies carried out by Chief Manufacturing Officer Arnaud Deboeuf.
The local union has accused plant managers of manipulating staffing data and using more temps than the contract allows in order to meet aggressive headcount reduction goals, according to a March 30 letter reviewed by Bloomberg.
Stellantis said it uses supplemental employees consistent with the provisions in the collective-bargaining contract.
One thing that’s bedeviled auto executives trying to clamp down on absenteeism is the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, a 1993 law that allows workers who’ve put in enough hours to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
At the new Jeep plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit, Tasha Bennett, a shop steward, said temporary workers are using family leave to get around a lack of vacation days.
“We are overworked, so overworked, and that’s why people don’t come to work,” Bennett said at a practice picket line last month. Temporary laborers “are forced to work upwards of 12 hours a day, every day,” she said, which means they qualify for leave faster.
Workers take leave “because they’re not able to take any days off,” she said.
Manufacturing executives say the FMLA lets employees skip work without facing consequences. Colin Lightbody, a former negotiator for Fiat Chrysler who retired in 2018, said he watched absenteeism get worse in his last 10 years.
“Twenty percent of the employees are driving 80 percent of the absenteeism,” he said. “You just have to address the people that are abusing it. It’s a small group.”
With assistance from Keith Naughton, David Welch and Albertina Torsoli.