A technician installs a front seat inside a Titan truck while on the assembly line at the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant in Canton, Miss., in April 2016.

Since March 20, when Nissan ceased production in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the company said it continued paying the employees it sent home their full salary.

This week, Nissan temporarily laid off all employees at its Canton plant, about 4,000, who have stopped working during the pandemic. The company plans to start production again on April 27, but still hasn’t determined the safest way to bring back employees, whether all at once or staggered over time.

“Obviously safety is the most important thing, especially if the virus hasn’t started to flatten out in terms of new cases,” said Nissan spokesperson Lloryn Love-Carter. “When you have that many people in a plant, we don’t want to be a reason for the cases to grow.”

Nissan’s approach diverges from some other large companies that have continued plant operations in Mississippi, such as Ingalls Shipbuilding, which employs 11,500 in Pascagoula and has reported 13 COVID-19 cases among its employees. Ingalls, like other employers, has conducted deep cleaning and sanitizing to contain the spread of the virus.

Nissan encourages its workers to file for unemployment, which comes with a maximum weekly benefit of $235 in Mississippi.

Federal legislation passed over a week ago boosts that amount by $600, but Mississippi Department of Employment Security spokesperson Dianne Bell said Monday the state still doesn’t know when it will kick in.

The increase, which will make it easier for jobless workers to support their families during this time, played into Nissan’s decision to layoff workers.

“The enhanced benefits through the CARES Act, that gave us some solace in terms of making that decision,” Love-Carter said.

During the last week in March, a historic 31,000 Mississippians filed for unemployment as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shuttered businesses and cancelled events. Nissan’s layoffs could result in another rush of claims for an agency already struggling to keep up with the influx.

The Nissan plant in Canton, opened in 2003 after receiving generous tax incentives from the state, $1.3 billion in the first decade, is touted as one of Mississippi’s greatest economic achievements. Once employing over 6,000 workers, recent sales declines resulted in layoffs at the Canton plant. Now the plant employs about 5,250 — which includes an unspoken number of temporary workers that don’t receive the same benefits as Nissan employees.

About 1,250 current employees are administrative, managerial, or maintenance workers who can continue working even through production has stopped, including some working from home.

While the plant currently plans to resume operations in three weeks and eventually hire back all employees, Love-Carter said the company will “continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.