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Only 41 percent of Bath Iron Works’ employees clocked in for their shift Tuesday morning, a day after the first positive coronavirus case at the shipyard was made public by owner General Dynamics, the head of the largest union said.
“If one quarter of the mechanics [on shift now] are working productively, we would be lucky,” said Chris Wiers, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Locals S6.
General Dynamics, the Bath shipyard’s parent company, said Sunday that the employee was last at work in the main yard on March 13.
Wiers said workers from nine departments are being called on to clean and sanitize work areas rather than do their regular jobs in the shipyard.
Wiers was on a videoconference call with Jessica Chubbuck-Goodwin, president of IAMAW Local S7, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport this morning talking about conditions at the shipyard.
The union heads have asked that the shipyard be closed and employees be allowed to go home with pay. The shipyard employs about 6,800 workers from all of Maine’s counties.
Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that she talked to Vice President Mike Pence to look into the shipbuilding contracts and modify the deadlines to allow some leave for employees.
“I’m asking the federal government for funds to support leave,” she said during the daily Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention press conference.
“As a defense contractor we cannot unilaterally refuse to perform our government contracts or discontinue operations, and, accordingly, we do not have the discretion to shut down,” said BIW spokesman David Hench.
A group of 17 Maine Democrats last week called for the Trump administration to extend shipbuilding deadlines for BIW, saying it is no longer safe for the shipyard to maintain normal operations during the coronavirus outbreak.
Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, along with 15 other legislative Democrats, in a letter sent last 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.”
In a memo last week, General Dynamics said the U.S. Navy confirmed the Bath shipyard was considered “critical infrastructure” under White House guidance that directed defense contractors to continue to operate normally in the interest of national security.
“I’ve grown increasingly concerned for the workers there and for the workload in front of you,” Gideon said on the videoconference call.
Wiers portrayed a shipyard with fearful employees continuing to work with skeletal staff, some of whom clock out as the work day progresses.
“Production is low and people are scared,” he said. “If BIW adhered to the 6-foot [distancing] rule, 75 percent of the production would be crippled.” He said workers on the ships and in tight spaces in the shipyard aren’t able to stay 6 feet apart.
He said he works shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow with other workers for most of his 8-hour shift, with 30 minutes off for lunch and a 10-minute break.
BIW still is trying to identify all of the people who came in contact with the sick employee per U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, he said.
“The individual went offsite to the East Brunswick manufacturing facility, where a lot of people 60 and older work,” he said. “Phone calls have flooded in today.”
He said three people came into primary contact with the sick person and were sent home. The company is paying them because they were exposed at work. Other people who take ill and go home are not paid, he said.
Chubbuck-Goodwin said she has had conflicting information on the payment policy and that communication from BIW is not clear.
One person who was directly exposed to the sick person on March 12 was sent home for two weeks, but he will return on Friday, Weirs said.
“People who had primary contact are asked to stay home 14 days from the time of exposure,” Wiers said.
BIW has hired about 2,000 new workers in the last two years, many of them younger people hired at a low wage and with few accrued days off, he said.
“A lot of the newer people only have 48 hours off,” Wiers said.
Even with some workers being pulled from their jobs to clean and sanitize, heavily used areas of the shipyard, like the tool cribs, aren’t being cleaned adequately, Wiers said. The tools, which are used by a lot of workers, are steel and could potentially carry the virus for a couple days, he said.
BIW’s Hench said that the company’s website does instruct employees to wipe the tools with sanitizing wipes when they are returned.
“We have implemented CDC-recommended measures to protect our workers in the labor intensive, heavy manufacturing shipyard environment,” he said.
Mills said she talked to BIW executives and asked that they make sure that shift workers don’t get too close at the gates of the shipyard, that break rooms are clean and that hand sanitizers are provided at regular intervals.
Both Wiers and Chubbuck-Goodwin called on the Navy, state and federal officials to take swift action to extend the length of the contracts and send workers home with pay.
Wiers said he hopes another letter is sent, this time with more direct language and with the top signature on it being the governor’s.
“We’re not in the military,” Wiers said. “Our only mission is to go home to our families and not spread this virus,” he said.