April 01, 2020
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Maine Democrats call for Trump administration to extend BIW shipbuilding deadlines

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Bath Iron Works' largest crane towers over the shipyard in Bath in this May 13, 2015, file photo.

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Maine Democratic leaders on Wednesday called for the federal government to extend deadlines for warships under construction at Bath Iron Works, saying it is no longer safe for the shipyard to maintain normal operations during the coronavirus outbreak.

House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, along with 15 other legislative Democrats, in a letter sent Wednesday asked Maine’s congressional delegation to “do all in your power” to convince the Trump administration to extend those deadlines by “at least an additional six months, or by as long as a national emergency declaration is in place.”

Bath Iron Works has come under fire from leaders of the two largest unions at the shipyard after its parent company, General Dynamics, said earlier this week that it will allow workers to take up to 80 hours of unpaid time off as well as vacation, sick time, personal business and other time-off options during the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Tuesday memo, General Dynamics said the U.S. Navy confirmed the Bath shipyard was considered “critical infrastructure” under White House guidance issued this week that directed defense contractors to continue to operate normally in the interest of national security.

But Gideon, Jackson and the other lawmakers said in their letter that the Bath shipyard, and other private defense contractors, need “flexibility” to protect the health of its workers and the state at large.

“If there were an outbreak at BIW, or any shipyard, it could not only jeopardize the health of the individuals, but also the ability for that facility to continue operations. We understand that they are critical infrastructure, and maintaining that infrastructure requires the people who make it possible stay healthy,” the letter reads.

Maintaining a normal operation to meet those deadlines, they write, assumes a healthy workforce and low risk for spread of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

“It is no longer a safe or realistic expectation for BIW or any large employer. It will likely result in loss of life and will definitely result in lost productivity,” the letter reads.

Extending those contract deadlines would allow the shipyard to reduce its workforce and allow workers to apply for temporary unemployment benefits, the lawmakers write.

The shipyard employs about 6,800 workers from all 16 of Maine’s counties.

A spokesman for Bath Iron Works declined Thursday to comment on “any potential changes in our operations.”

“We are proud of our shipyard workers who have stepped up during this challenging time to carry out their obligation to our nation’s defense. They have demonstrated dedication and flexibility in adapting to challenges, and have been supported by a community that recognizes the importance of their work under these difficult circumstances,” the spokesman, David Hench, said in a statement.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly asking the officials to mitigate financial burdens defense contractors and subcontractors, particularly at the Bath shipyard, may face during an outbreak that is bringing strain and stress onto the workforce that is “without recent precedent.”

“We are deeply concerned about the stability of the defense industrial base as the whole nation combats the current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” the delegation wrote in the letter. “We are equally worried about the health and safety risks to the industrial bases’ primary asset — its skilled workforce — as defense companies struggle to support our nation’s military while also managing the unique challenge we face today.”

The delegation also asked that Epser and Modly “clarify” their planning and guidance “to ensure a stable industrial base while also ensuring the health and safety” of its workforce.

So far, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are 52 confirmed and likely cases of the coronavirus in at least eight counties across the state. Nationally, the virus has sickened at least 10,442 people in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and caused 150 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No cases have yet been reported in Sagadahoc County, where the shipyard is located.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of people who work at Bath Iron Works.

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