By David Shepardson and Ben Klayman
(Reuters) - Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) <FCHA.MI> said Thursday an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 at its Kokomo, Indiana, transmission plant but the location will remain open, raising the specter of U.S. shutdowns hitting the industry.
The Italian-American automaker said the employee was receiving medical care and his immediate co-workers and others he may have come into direct contact with have been placed in home quarantine.
The coronavirus outbreak began in China but has spread around the world. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is a highly contagious respiratory illness.
The number of U.S. coronavirus cases has risen steadily to more than 1,300, with 38 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Fears of a U.S. sales slowdown in auto showrooms are appearing in analysts' forecasts, but industry executives said earlier this week that the pandemic had yet to affect demand or factory production.
Automakers typically schedule plant staffing to allow for a certain proportion of absent workers, industry consultants said. However, if the outbreak causes higher levels due to infection or workers staying home to care for children whose schools are closed, that could lead to reduced production or in extreme cases shutdowns.
And if parts suppliers are out of action for even a few days, that could force automakers to close assembly plants, said Steve Wybo, auto group practice leader for consultancy Conway MacKenzie.
"Three, 4, 5% absenteeism? No problem," he said. "But you get 10 or 15 or 20% of the people not coming in, there's going to be a massive problem."
In its statement on Thursday, FCA said it is "deploying additional sanitization measures across the entire facility, re-timing break times to avoid crowding and deploying social spacing." It is also canceling all in-person meetings unless "business critical" and is using video conferencing instead.
Many auto companies have canceled non-essential travel as the outbreak spreads.
Ford Motor Co <F.N> said its North American plants remain unaffected. General Motors Co <GM.N> spokesman Jim Cain said it has not had any cases in its North American plants yet, but how the No. 1 U.S. automaker would respond to a positive test would depend on the situation.
"You do plan to operate with a certain amount of absenteeism, but every facility has a different operating plan," Cain said.
The United Auto Workers union, which represents hourly workers at FCA and the other Detroit automakers, said it is monitoring and reacting to the outbreak, as well as working with the automakers to protect members and others in the plants.
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Ben Klayman; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Daniel Wallis)