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TEXARKANA, Ark. — Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. has had less than 12 employees test positive for COVID-19 since late April and the company continues to put safety protocols in place to keep employees safe, a union official said Thursday.

"We have 1,750 people in that plant and it is important to keep it up and running, but not so important that we sacrifice the safety of our employees," said Kerry Halter, the president of United Steelworkers Local 752L in Texarkana, Ark.

The 1,750 employees include the bargain unit, which is about 1,470 strong, as well as salary and temporary employees.

Since the plant reopened in late April, social distancing has been practiced and wearing a mask has been required if employees are within six feet of each other.

But a new practice is being implemented this week regarding face masks.

The plant's section leaders are distributing face masks, which must now be worn not only when social distancing but when walking the hallways or other areas of the plant where others have been, Halter said.

"There was a situation that happened with one area where people worked closely together, but not exactly in the area at the same time. There was a positive case that came out of that that we did not know about. There is a lot of interaction in that area and it exposed some weaknesses or holes in what they were doing as far as traveling from one place to next and thinking just because I can social distance everything is OK," he said.

Because of this, masks must now be worn unless the employee is in an area alone, such as working on a machine or on a certain process.

Halter said employees reporting illnesses, regardless of what kind of illness, is key.

"They have to notify that he or she is feeling sick to management. They are immediately taken to a different location, asked a series of questions and are not allowed to come back to work until they are clear," he said. " Even if they don't have COVID, they are going to have to get released (by a doctor) to come back to work."

Halter said with a workforce as large as Cooper's, there will be times when people are on vacation, have health issues like a toothache or stomach flu or have obligations that take them off the line. In those times, it is not uncommon for workers to be shifted to different areas to accommodate workloads.

Cleaning services disinfect offices and break areas daily and Plexiglas has also been installed in break rooms. Equipment and machines are also cleaned.

The plant operates 24 hours a day and has two shifts — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. — with a total of four crews. About 300 to 350 people are on each crew.

A small group of employees also work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"We have even changed the times employees clock in and clock out so they do not congregate in one area," Halter said. " It is safety first and production next."

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