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Chris Wiers felt his hands were tied Friday morning as he drove toward the Bath Iron Works shipyard around 5 a.m.
He watched several shipyard employees brace against the wind and rain as they walked a mile more to work from satellite parking lots after transportation options to the yard were limited because of the coronavirus. Wiers couldn’t offer a ride because of physical distancing mandates.
“People were walking in the dark in the driving rain with their umbrellas bending over,” said Wiers, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S6, which is BIW’s largest union with roughly 4,300 members.
A recent curtailment of transportation options is the latest problem between BIW and its unions, which have been asking the shipyard and its parent, General Dynamics, to let workers stay home with pay. For now, they can take vacation pay or leave without pay under certain circumstances.
On Friday, Wiers said only one-third of the shipyard’s manufacturing employees, 1,314 workers, showed up for work on the first shift after BIW announced a second worker tested positive for the virus. The day after the first worker tested positive last month, 41 percent of BIW workers clocked in for the first shift.
“This is the lowest number of manufacturing employees to show up yet,” Wiers said on Friday.
BIW spokesman David Hench said the yard has seen more employees at work today than the last two Fridays, though it has seen a decrease in attendance of between 25 percent and 30 percent over the last two weeks relative to it would generally expect. In an update on Friday afternoon, BIW said it would open its Shephard Street Lot opposite the west gate of the shipyard on Monday for additional parking.
Wiers said the first curtailing of transportation started when Bomer, the company transporting about 500 workers via school buses from its own parking lots to the shipyard, decided to stop service to curtail the spread of the virus.
BIW was paying for those vans, Wiers said, and the company offered to provide its own vans if workers volunteered to drive them. He said nobody volunteered, so BIW “called the city to open spots to park in.” That left some people walking an average of a mile from those lots to the shipyard.
Hench said BIW has worked with the city of Bath to increase temporary parking closer to the shipyard by 70 percent over the last several weeks and those lots “are as close to the shipyard as possible.”
As of March 31, private vans owned by employees carpooling from further away also were banned from the shipyard, which cited an order a week earlier from Gov. Janet Mills outlining the types of businesses that could stay open and closed during the outbreak.
Wiers said he is talking with the governor’s office and several legislators to try to get BIW’s Bath operations declared a nonessential business by the governor, a move that could close the yard. Hench has said the shipyard “cannot unilaterally refuse to perform our government contracts or discontinue operations.”
On Friday, Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation renewed a March 19 call for the U.S. Department of Defense to protect the health of shipyard workers after the second coronavirus test at the yard. The federal government has deemed Bath Iron Works and all other defense suppliers as essential businesses critical to the nation’s defense.
Mills and the delegation asked the Pentagon to mitigate cash flow and other financial burdens for contractors and subcontractors, including relief from extension of contracts. They also asked for accelerated or advanced payments or new contract obligations to provide stability to the industry.