Hundreds of reserve sailors are helping Norfolk Naval Shipyard with virus-prompted maintenance backlog
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 14, 2020
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NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In the early days of the pandemic, some employees at Norfolk Naval Shipyard stopped working. They were considered to be at high risk for complications from COVID-19 and placed on leave, the Navy said.
Thousands of hours of labor were lost and work started to pile up on the aircraft carriers Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush, as well as two submarines.
The shipyard needed help.
That’s where the Navy’s SurgeMain program stepped in, said Capt. Rich Sussman, director of military and reserve programs at Naval Sea Systems Command.
Started 15 years ago as a way to augment the workforce at the Navy’s four public shipyards, SurgeMain developed a reserve of more than 2,000 sailors with mechanical skills who were ready to help when needed.
Though the reservists have come to the shipyards over the years to train, the pandemic is the first time they’ve been fully mobilized. It’s an “unprecedented” move for non-humanitarian, domestic purposes.
“We always thought it’d be something more in the contingent environment where we’re sending people overseas” into battle, Sussman said. “We never really thought we’d have a call to arms because of a virus.”
At Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, 178 reservists have arrived so far, said Capt. Dan Rossler, the shipyard’s deputy commander.
A total of 480 are set to come by September. They’re scheduled to stay a year, through next fall.
Some are local, while others are coming from as far as Puerto Rico and staying at hotels in Hampton Roads.
SurgeMain officials prioritized experience when calling on reservists to reduce the maintenance backlog, matching their backgrounds and certifications with the shipyard’s needs. Outside mechanics were the biggest need, Rossler said.
Walking around the shipyard last week, Rossler said he was already seeing SurgeMain sailors “everywhere.”
The reservists have been doing lifting and handling, making bookshelves and locks that will be replaced on ships, helping with rigging for cranes and more, he said.
Some of the reservists arrived last month, around the same time the USS Truman sailed in for a short maintenance stop. They helped set up temporary services for the overhaul, including lighting, ventilation and scaffolding, according to a news release.
In early July, the Navy said up to a quarter of the four shipyards’ production workforce had been placed on safety leave since mid-March because they were considered high risk.
Norfolk Naval Shipyard has 10,815 civilian employees and 700 military personnel, spokeswoman Terri Davis said in an email. She said the number of regular employees out has varied during the crisis, so she couldn’t say how many the shipyard is currently down.
Rossler said he expects issues to be compounded with the return of the school year and concerns over child care. The reservists will continue to be needed.
“All these folks have taken an oath,” Sussman said. “It’s eye watering when you see the call go out and they say, ‘yep, I’m all in.‘”
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