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Congressional, state, local officials urge Dept. of Defense to act now to protect BIW workforce during pandemic

'A coronavirus outbreak at BIW could have grave consequences for ... the state,' Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Congressman Jared Golden wrote in a release.
Courtesy Bath Iron Works

BATH, Maine — Maine's Congressional delegation, state legislative leaders and Bath city officials on Thursday urged the U.S. Department of Defense to act immediately to ensure the safety of the country's defense industrial base, including shipyards and shipbuilders, and warned of potential consequences should a coronavirus outbreak hit the shipyard.

Acknowledging that BIW is part of the nation's "critical infrastructure," U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Congressman Jared Golden (D-Maine) said in a statement that "our nation's leaders need to confront reality: BIW can’t build the best warships in the world if its shipbuilders are sick or caring for sick family members. With Bath shipbuilders hailing from hundreds of towns in each of Maine’s sixteen counties, a coronavirus outbreak at BIW could have grave consequences for households and communities throughout the state.”

Later on Thursday, Maine's entire Congressional delegation wrote to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly that the safety of shipbuilders is "paramount."

“We are deeply concerned about the stability of the defense industrial base as the whole nation combats the current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” Senators Collins and King and Representatives Pingree and Golden wrote.  “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 asked specifically that the Defense Department work to provide contractors with financial relief, relief from contracting requirements, and "clarify their planning and public guidance to ensure a stable industrial base while also ensuring the health and safety of the defense industrial base workforce."

RELATED: Amid union demands for a shutdown, Bath Iron Works shuttle service discontinued, new parking arranged

On Wednesday, Maine's legislative leaders, led by Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson urged the congressional delegation to take action.

"Each day thousands of men and women flood through the gates of BIW to build the ships our Navy relies on to protect the nation ... 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," they wrote.

On Tuesday, BIW issued a release stating that the U.S. Navy confirmed that BIW is included among "critical infrastructure" that President Donald Trump has said must continue to operate in the interest of national security.

In their letter, legislative leaders wrote, "At this time, BIW management interprets the President's directive as a mandate to maintain normal work operations to meed deadlines, which assumes a healthy employee population and a low risk of community transmission of disease. This 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."

BIW's unions have urged the company to close the shipyard for two weeks and provide employees with two weeks pay.

RELATED: Unions demand Bath Iron Works close shipyard to help contain coronavirus

On Wednesday, Maine Gov. Janet Mills told Maine Public's Jennifer Rooks that BIW management had been in discussions with the Department of Defense.

"Last I heard this morning, the Department of Defense was declaring that Bath Iron Works and other similar operations were essential businesses, essential operations, and not allowing them to close down, but you know but I am convinced that there will be some accommodations," she said. "I am not prepared to close any industrial manufacturers or industrial worksites and this time, and, at this time, the Federal government sort of has the final say on that particular enterprise.” 

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Mills said, in part, that she appreciates and supports the delegation's request that the DoD "take swift action to protect the health and safety of Bath Iron Works' employees and to protect the viability of the nation's industrial base."

Also on Thursday, Mari Eosco, chairwoman of the Bath City Council, and Bath City Manager Peter Owen wrote to the congressional delegation to say that the city and state are "being put at undue risk due the pressures on BIW" during the pandemic.

"The fact that one of the state's largest employers continues to permit over 8,000 employees from 16 counties [to] enter Bath on a daily basis, intermingling in close quarters and then return to their communities is a failure in recognition of the threat at hand," they wrote, adding that the continued action is "a significant danger" to the city and state.

A phone call Thursday morning to Alan Baribeau, Public Information Officer for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), was not returned.

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