BATH, Maine — Only 41 percent of the manufacturing staff at Bath Iron Works (BIW) clocked in Tuesday morning, leading union officials to question how productive the shipyard can be during the coronavirus pandemic, with one employee now testing positive for the virus.
Union officials, along with legislators and legislative leaders, have called on the federal government to provide BIW with flexibility in the delivery date of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers they build for the U.S. Navy.
A letter from Maine's Congressional delegation last week to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly failed to achieve that end. Instead, James F. Guerts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, wrote to the delegation that the company is part of "critical infrastructure."
But during a press briefing held Tuesday, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and leaders of two BIW unions said employees have told them they fear going to work in the shipyard, but can't afford to take unpaid time off.
Chris Wiers, president of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, the largest union at BIW, told Gideon that the union was told Tuesday morning by BIW's Director of Manufacturing Evan Gilman that only 41 percent of the company's manufacturing workforce reported for work Tuesday morning.
Wiers said he was told 58 percent of manufacturing employees reported for work on Monday.
BIW declined to comment on the statistic but noted that workers at one building were told not to report for work until 9 a.m. due to a power outage.
Wiers said workers from nine different departments were being pulled from regular duties to help sanitize and clean the shipyard, which also reduces production.
Gideon, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Susan Collins, asked Wiers, "How is the production and workflow actually going?" It seems that it must be greatly hindered already."
"I guarantee you that if we're at a quarter of our mechanics actively working, being productive, we'd probably be lucky," Wiers replied.
Wiers said the company has posted alerts about maintaining the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control guideline of six feet between people, but he said, "Out on the ship floor, in production areas, and on the ship, they cannot and will not adhere to that six-feet rule."
Monday evening, BIW President Dirk Lesko posted a letter to employees on the company's website urging calm, but reiterating that the company would remain open because President Donald Trump and the U.S. Navy "has mandated that we do so."
Gideon said she will continue to work to ensure the safety of BIW employees.
"We want to make sure that workers are kept safe and can come back and do their jobs the right way when the time is right," she said.
Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that she continues to urge the defense department to allow some changes to protect BIW workers.
In a statement Tuesday, Maine's Congressional delegation said they would continue to work with the administration and other members of Congress to provide flexibility "to deal with these unprecedented circumstances."