Hundreds of thousands of Michigan workers on Monday began to return to work as “phase three” of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to re-engage the Michigan economy amid the COVID-19 outbreak took effect with manufacturing resuming.

The industry represents 19% of the economy for the state that put America on wheels. Before Monday, less than 5% of business activity had been considered “essential.” Roughly 622,700 Michiganians worked in manufacturing in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

Manufacturing’s activation, however, is a slow one. Detroit’s three automakers won’t begin making vehicles until next week, but their suppliers and other manufacturers this week are reopening facilities, retraining employees and restarting production. And they’re phasing in the process in hopes of avoiding new virus cases.

“We don’t want to jump in right away with everybody back and then things go haywire,” said Trent DeSenglau, United Auto Workers Local 155 chairman for Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc.’s Fraser plant that makes transmission components, shafts, gears and other metal parts for the auto industry. “They are doing a measured approach, which is what we asked them to do.”

American Axle recalled at the Macomb County plant one shift of three for the week starting at 6:45 a.m., DeSenglau said. A tent outside had workers drive through to get their temperatures checked and pick up masks and other protective equipment before entering the facility. The new measures inside the plant, including hand sanitizing stations, helped ease some of the workers’ concerns.

“My facility is doing a good job,” DeSenglau said. “They are listening to us.”

American Axle declined to comment. But during its earnings call on Friday, the company said it expects to resume production in phases starting in mid-May and going into June in North America and Europe.

Ramp up for auto suppliers even could extend into July, said Dan Kennedy, executive director of sales for Illinois-based Flex-N-Gate, which makes metals, plastics and other parts in Detroit, Livonia, Grand Rapids and elsewhere. The timing will align with its customers such as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV that are resuming production progressively starting May 18.

“As they ramp up, we will ramp up,” Kennedy said.

The week-long head start, however, will help suppliers to ensure the automakers can make that start with their own operations and their supply base.

“Some you can pop out with your eyes closed, while others take longer,” Kennedy said.

And with no cash entering the supply base after the automakers began shutting down in late March, some have struggled with fixed costs. Seeking to avoid disruption, Canada-based Magna International Inc., an auto supplier, was helping some of its components providers explore potential liquidity solutions and government financial assistance, Swamy Kotagiri, the company’s president, said last week during an earnings call.

Flex-N-Gate on Monday is beginning to open its industrial facilities in Michigan, turning on large injection molding machines and presses and recalling workers. Those efforts will continue at different facilities late into the week.

Employees will get their temperatures checked and fill out a questionnaire about travel and if they are experiencing symptoms. If they are, they may be sent home or quarantined in a separate room until they can get a ride. Those able to enter the building will receive and must wear a face mask.

Management also will go “page by page” with the workers through the company’s restart “playbook,” Kennedy said, that discusses the new protocols including social distancing and wiping down work stations before and after their shifts.

“It’s to make sure they understand it, they agree with it, and that it makes sense to you,” he said. “We need to not only ensure that, but that we believe each other to do this in the right way.”

Southfield-based seating and electric systems supplier Lear Corp. was one of the earliest in the auto industry to publish publicly its guidance online. The 84-page document outlines materials to have on hand, employee outreach efforts, training timelines and more. It has been downloaded 23,000 times from its website, Lear CEO Ray Scott said Friday during an earnings call.

“After COVID-19 surfaced in China and started to spread globally,” he said, “we realized that our plant processes would have to adapt quickly to this new environment.”

Lear’s playbook pulled from the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control Prevention and the World Health Organization. Companies also are learning from restarting production in China and Europe, Flex-N-Gate’s Kennedy said.

After being away from the job for six weeks, Flex-N-Gate employees will get a refresher on ensuring the production of quality parts. They also will adjust to doing the work with additional safety measures. As that happens, the companies can begin resuming production based on the orders from the automakers, which themselves initially will start with fewer shifts and slower production rates.

“The last thing anyone wants is to start-stop, start-stop,” Kennedy said. “They are big, complex monsters. Once they get going, you don’t want to stop. So, everyone is taking a smart, thoughtful and logistical manner.”

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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