BATH — The Assistant Secretary of the Navy Thursday told Bath Iron Works’ president to emphasize the shipyard’s need to stay open, regardless of the health risk to its 8,000 employees.

In a letter to Dirk Lesko, the shipyard’s president, James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy emphasized “the importance of employee health and safety,” but added employee health is not overshadowed by the shipyard’s importance to the Navy.

“Delivering or redelivering our ships to the fleet is a national need that is unwavering and crucial to our national security,” Geurts wrote. “Secretary Modley, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), and I understand that this national emergency presents a challenge and we are dedicated to working closely with you to ensure the safety of the workforce and the national security mission.”

The letter comes after a week where union leaders and Maine delegates demanded the shipyard close to protect workers and their families from coronavirus as it spreads throughout the state. As of Sunday, Maine health officials reported 89 coronavirus cases in Maine, up from 70 at the start of the weekend.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the disease caused by a coronavirus, COVID-19, is spread through person-to-person contact and when respiratory droplets, produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, land in a person’s eyes, mouth or are inhaled.

Public health officials are urging everyone to practice good hygiene – washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer as a backup – as well as keeping a 6-foot buffer between others, avoiding large gatherings and practicing “social distancing.”

Geurts pointed to President Trump’s coronavirus guidelines, which urge people to work from home when possible to avoid spreading the disease, but states “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry … you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

BIW is considered a critical infrastructure industry because it builds destroyers for the U.S. Navy, notably the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which has been called the “workhorse of the Navy.” The Bath shipyard has ongoing contracts with the Navy for 11 destroyers, some of which are under construction.

Geurts’ letter was sent shortly after a joint statement from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden was released Thursday in which they called on the Defense Department to do more to protect BIW employees from the coronavirus. They also vowed to provide the U.S. Department of Defense with any authority or funding needed to mitigate the virus’s spread while keeping the defense industrial base and national security strong.

“We are deeply concerned about the stability of the defense industrial base as the whole nation combats the current novel coronavirus outbreak,” the statement reads. “We are equally worried about the health and safety risks to the industrial base’s primary asset – its skilled workforce – as defense companies struggle to support our nation’s military while also managing the unique challenge we face today.”

Also on Thursday, Maine House Speaker Sarah Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, both Democrats, issued a joint statement urging the Defense Department to push back its scheduled deadlines for delivery of Bath-made warships, citing the virus pandemic.

“At this time, BIW management has been directed by the federal government to maintain normal work operations to meet deadlines, which assume a healthy employee population, and a low risk of community transmission of disease,” their statement reads. “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.”

Maine delegates echoed the leaders of two of the shipyard’s largest unions, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers locals S6 and S7, who called on the company to close Tuesday and give employees paid leave for two weeks to protect BIW’s 8,000 workers from coronavirus.

Chris Wiers, Local S6 president, renewed that call Friday and referenced a memo BIW sent to employees Wednesday, assuring them proper sanitization steps were being taken to protect employees.

“General Dynamics claims that it is maintaining proper social distancing policies to prevent a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at the shipyard, but the reality on the ground is much different,” said Wiers. “Production workers continue to work in close quarters, putting all of us at risk of contracting this virus.”

Union leaders also highlighted a 1989 study conducted by the CDC after a tuberculosis outbreak at the shipyard infected over 570 workers. In its study, the CDC noted “Workers on the ships work in small, enclosed areas … Conditions on the ships are frequently crowded; physical contact with people in some areas (passageways and cubbyholes) is almost impossible to avoid.”

BIW spokesman David Hench issued a statement Thursday saying the company is “not commenting right now” on any potential changes to its operations.

“We are proud of our shipyard workers who have stepped up during this challenging time to carry out their obligation to our nation’s defense,” Hench wrote. “They have demonstrated dedication and flexibility in adapting to challenges, and have been supported by a community that recognizes the importance of their work under these difficult circumstances.”

Maine delegates did not return requests for comment Friday.


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