Bath Iron Works officials notified the shipyard’s largest union on Tuesday that 48 workers will be laid off Jan. 21 because of a work shortage in their trades.

The 39 pipefitters and nine machinists will be laid off at a time when BIW is hiring workers in other trades, reflecting the fluctuating work flow at the shipyard despite the fact that five massive U.S. Navy destroyers are at various stages of construction in Bath. Most of the affected workers are expected to be given other work for at least 30 days, but BIW managers and union officials were unable to reach an agreement on a longer-term solution.

“The work these workers would have performed is not yet available because we are behind schedule and, as a result, we have an imbalance within trades,” said BIW spokesman Matt Wickenheiser. “That will result in higher costs for our customer (the Navy) if we didn’t address it.”

The planned layoffs are not connected to an outsourcing proposal that is causing friction between shipyard managers and labor leaders. But the disagreement over a potential response to the layoffs illustrates the challenges both sides face while negotiating the complex labor contract between management and the Local S6 chapter of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, which represents more than 3,000 shipyard workers.

Employment levels at BIW – a subsidiary of the defense contracting giant General Dynamics – have been on the upswing for much of the past year. The shipyard has contracts to build two types of destroyers: the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class ships that have been a workhorse of the Navy for decades and the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class “stealth” destroyers. Even so, the shipyard periodically lays off workers because there is not enough work in their particular trade.

Jay Wadleigh, president of the Local S6 chapter, said he is confident most of the 48 workers affected by this round of layoffs will be offered a “short-term recall” that would allow them to continue working for at least 30 days, with the possibility of an additional 30-day extension. The union did not agree with a company proposal, however, to “loan” most of the workers to another small department for a potentially longer period of time.

Wadleigh said the union is concerned that placing nearly 40 people in what is now a 79-person department will cause that section to “burn all of its hours” earlier in the year, thereby triggering layoffs in the department later this year. Yet Wadleigh said he was optimistic, based on conversations late Tuesday afternoon, that the laid-off workers could be loaned elsewhere in the yard.

“If we can find a way to break these people up and spread them out across departments, it would be much easier to come to an agreement,” Wadleigh said.

Wickenheiser said the shipyard is currently hiring painters and electricians. BIW officials have also formally notified Local S6 of plans to outsource fabrication of some ship components – such as lockers, electrical panels and tables – that are currently made by Bath employees. Shipyard managers say the outsourcing is critical to competing for a “must-win” Coast Guard cutter contract that could help the shipyard avoid 1,000 to 1,200 job losses when construction of the Zumwalt-class destroyers ends.

The union is analyzing the outsourcing proposal but has publicly questioned the cost-savings.

Wickenheiser said the 48 layoffs announced Tuesday and the outsourcing proposal are “absolutely separate issues” but suggested that both illustrate the need for more flexibility to adapt to work-flow demands.

“The company remains committed to working within the collective bargaining agreement,” Wickenheiser said. “But we need to become more affordable so that we can compete and continue to win future work.”