Workers Raise Concerns About COVID-19 At U.S. Naval Shipyards

A cruiser enters drydock at BAE Norfolk Ship Repair (USN file image)

Published Apr 15, 2020 9:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

One week after a contractor at BAE's Norfolk Ship Repair yard died from COVID-19 complications, about 40 of his colleagues are not reporting to work in order to highlight alleged coronavirus safety issues. 

The group is made up of non-union General Dynamics employees who are contracted directly to the U.S. government, not to BAE, according to local media. They are assigned to repair work on the destroyer USS Bulkeley and the cruiser USS Gettysburg. "Because our work is on the ships themselves rather than in the yard where there is more space, our company’s employees are at extra high risk, though the risk is certainly there for everyone in the yard,” a member of the group told local WAVY News. "People will spend hours at a time working within 2 to 3 feet of another employee."

The workers are calling for a formal shipyard coronavirus safety plan, designated coronavirus management team, a PPE restock hotline, and assigned one-way passageways on board the vessels under repair in order to minimize person-to-person contact. 

Bath Iron Works employees agree to new contract

Members of the largest union at General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works yard have agreed to a one-month contract extension after a protracted debate about coronavirus safety. The agreement avoids the need for the union to hold a 4,000-person mass meeting to vote on whether to accept a new contract. Machinists Union Local S6 president Chris Weirs had previously warned that the membership would strike over concerns about the yard's response to COVID-19 cases. An informal industrial action already occurred: on March 24, about 60 percent of the union's workforce elected to stay home, according to Weirs.

Two BIW employees have tested positive to date. The first case involved an employee who has since recovered and returned to work, and the second was confirmed on April 2. Employees who came into contact with these two individuals have been asked to stay at home and self-quarantine for two weeks. 

Bath Iron Works says that the Navy has asked it to remain open and maintain its normal working schedule throughout the pandemic in order to meet national security requirements; Bath is one of two shipyards building Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the Navy. In order to keep running, it has implemented a range of risk-reduction measures, like banning visitor access, screening vendors, separating working groups and work shifts, upping cleaning frequency and implementing social distancing. Workers now have access to extended unpaid leave if needed, along with short-term benefits in the event that they are required to self-quarantine or self-isolate.

NNS reports more COVID-19 cases

Newport News Shipbuilding, the world's only builder of nuclear-powered carriers, has reported 23 cases of COVID-19 to date, including four new cases within the past week. At least 120 people have been quarantined due to potential exposure. The yard is upping its prevention measures by requiring masks for close-proximity work, staggering shift changes and increasing minimum distance requirements on walkways.

25,000 people work in and around NNS, and workers have expressed concern that the number of infections could rise. Some have called for additional efforts to control the risk at the yard. “They have shut down schools, they have shut down barbershops — churches, one that I’m a pastor of — and yet they expect the people here at Newport News Shipbuilding, management and salary, to deliver a vessel,” said Steelworkers Union President Charles Spivey, speaking to local WAVY.