Despite Bath Iron Works worker testing positive for coronavirus, union officials say company won't budge
By J. CRAIG ANDERSON | Portland Press Herald, Maine | Published: March 23, 2020
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PORTLAND, Maine (Tribune News Service) — A Bath Iron Works employee has tested positive for coronavirus, but union officials said the company is not budging on its decision to keep the shipyard open in the midst of the pandemic.
The company issued a statement on its website Sunday saying it was notifying employees who were in close contact with the worker who tested positive, and that those employees would “complete a 14-day period of observation from their last contact.”
BIW spokesman David Hench said the workers who were in close contact have been told to stay home while under observation. A union official said the company did not reveal the person’s name to them, but they believe it was a member of the shipyard’s labor relations staff.
“BIW was informed today that an employee has contracted the COVID-19 virus,” the company statement reads in part. “The individual was last at work on March 13 in the Main Yard.”
Union officials want the company to shut down the yard for two weeks to keep the virus in check.
“That’s the only thing that will prevent this from spreading … especially now that we know this is in the shipyard,” said Jessica Chubbock-Goodwin, president of the Local S7 at the yard, which primarily represents office workers.
Chubbock-Goodwin and Chris Wiers, president of machinists’ union Local S6 at the yard, said management has been steadfast in its refusal to shut down the yard. The company has pointed to a Navy statement that said the delivery of the warships built at BIW as essential to national security.
Wiers said union officials will continue to pressure the company to shut the yard and pay the workers.
“We are firm in our position that that’s the right thing to do,” Wiers said.
So far, he said, BIW has replied with a flat “no” to the demand and hasn’t discussed it with the unions.
Wiers said the union sent three of its employees home after learning they may have been in contact with the worker they believe tested positive.
“We are not invited to the table to make any decisions,” he said. “Our only mission is to keep ourselves safe and our families safe.”
Chubbock-Goodwin said her concern is heightened because many of her union’s members are older workers. Health officials said the virus seems to cause more severe health problems in older people, particularly those with other health issues.
“We’re taking a big gamble, and we’re gambling with people’s lives,” she said about keeping the shipyard open.
Union officials have been contacting the state’s congressional delegation, urging lawmakers to put pressure on the Navy to rescind its statement calling on BIW to keep the yard open, Chubbock-Goodwin said.
Company officials responded to some questions about the positive test early Monday morning, but did not return calls seeking further details later in the morning. BIW said it would put out a more detailed statement later Monday.
Early Monday, Maine House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, called on BIW to not “maintain normal operations.”
The company said its medical personnel are working closely with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It urged employees who are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, or have been exposed to someone with symptoms, not to report to work.
Symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent coughing or fever, it said.
Last week, leaders of two of the largest unions at BIW called on the shipyard’s parent company, General Dynamics, to immediately close the yard and send its 8,000 workers home with full pay to comply with social distancing recommendations to contain the spread of coronavirus.
But on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Geurts told BIW’s president to emphasize the shipyard’s need to stay open, regardless of the health risk to its employees, noting the importance of delivering warships to the fleet.
According to the Maine CDC, there were 89 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maine as of Sunday, an increase of 33 percent over Friday’s total. More than half of the cases occurred in Cumberland County, it said.
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