Maine’s Congressional delegation is urging the U.S. Navy to allow Bath Iron Works management to provide its workers with the same level of protection from the coronavirus that the Navy is requiring for workers at its public shipyards.

Those protections include allowing workers who may be more vulnerable to severe symptoms if they contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, to stay home from work on paid administrative leave.

BIW recently agreed to allow workers to take unpaid leave if they stay home from work over concerns of falling ill. About half of BIW’s workforce has been showing up for work this week, the union said.

Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, Angus King, an independent, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, both Democrats, released their letter Friday.

“In response to this pandemic, the Navy earlier issued direction to each of its four public shipyards intended to limit the potential exposure of shipyard workers to COVID-19 while also maximizing the important national security work accomplished,” the letter said. “We urge you to provide similar guidelines to our nation’s large private shipyards, the workers at which face similar health and safety concerns, and to permit necessary contract or deadline flexibility and funding to ensure such guidance would be feasible to implement for these shipyards.”

Chris Wiers, the president of the largest union at the shipyard, Machinists Union Local S6, which includes about 4,700 of the 7,000 or so workers at the shipyard, said they welcomed the letter and the increased pressure on the Department of Defense and Navy.

Wiers also said because of an already lean workforce and a new order from Gov. Janet Mills that shut down the shipyard’s use of commuter vans, very little actual shipbuilding is taking place or is going to take place in the near future at the shipyard.

Wiers said shipbuilders objected weeks ago to being required to continue to work in close quarters and to their designation as essential workers for national defense. He said that simply isn’t the case as the nation isn’t at war and none of the ships currently being built would be in immediate demand.

Workers are concerned they will spread the virus to other parts of the state as workers come to the shipyard from all across Maine, many traveling back and forth to Bath each day.

“The whole thing is just crazy,” Wiers said Friday. “Hopefully this second letter can apply the proper pressure to the defense secretary.”

Wiers said only about 25 percent of the production workforce is showing up for work and a large portion of those workers were being tasked with sanitizing the shipyard in a effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

So far, one shipyard worker has tested positive for COVID-19.

Collins, King, Pingree and Golden said they realize under different circumstances it would be improper for the Navy to pressure a private contractor on workforce management, but the pandemic has created an exceptional circumstance.

“… We are dealing with a highly contagious and deadly pandemic unlike anything our country has faced in over a century, and private shipyards are working to simultaneously maintain contractual obligations while complying with critical state and local public health orders,” the lawmakers wrote. “… We believe the Navy should take aggressive actions to ensure the health of the shipyard industrial base workforce is not put at undue risk as governments at all levels work to halt the spread of COVID-19.”

Wiers said BIW management itself was being pressured by the Department of Defense to stay operating even though shipyard workers were not part of the U.S. military.

“We were told this is our mission,” Wiers said. “But we are not in the military, we don’t have missions, the only mission we have is to go home to our families every night and not spread this virus around.”

BIW released a statement reiterating its commitment to fulfilling its obligations to the nation.

“We are committed to the health and safety of our workforce and have implemented CDC-recommended measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, even as we carry out our special responsibility as part of our nation’s critical infrastructure to continue operations,” BIW spokesman David Hench said in an email late Friday. “We salute the men and women of Bath Iron Works for their dedication and devotion to duty during this challenging time.”

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