EVERETT — A day after a worker at the Boeing plant in Everett reportedly died from COVID-19, the company said it will suspend operations at Puget Sound-area locations for 14 days, starting Wednesday.
The Chicago-based company said production would begin winding down Monday and that employees should continue to report for assigned shifts, during which they would receive guidance on their roles.
“These actions are being taken to ensure the well-being of employees, their families and the local community, and will include an orderly shutdown consistent with the requirements of its customers,” Boeing said in a statement.
The flight-line inspector at the Everett factory who died was the first known Boeing employee to succumb to the coronavirus. His death Sunday, reported on Facebook and confirmed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751, put into grim perspective weeks of growing frustration, anger and fear among Boeing’s Puget Sound-area workforce. Seventeen workers at the Everett campus have tested positive for COVID-19, a Boeing spokesman said Sunday. On Monday, the count of infections at the company’s Puget Sound facilities was 25.
“A union brother and union steward in Everett has sadly passed away and family members have publicly stated it is from the COVID-19 virus,” the union said in a statement Monday. “Our hearts and prayers go out to his family.”
More than 35,000 people work at the Everett campus at Paine Field, in three shifts. Many plant employees had said they were fed up with what they described as Boeing’s inadequate response to the outbreak.
For weeks, workers on the factory floor complained to news media about a lack of cleaning supplies and told of overwhelmed and overworked cleaning crews as a growing number of them, at the Everett plant and other locations, called for the company to shut down.
Last week, an impromptu protest erupted inside the Everett factory in the work area of an employee who had tested positive for COVID-19. Co-workers were angry for not being allowed to self-quarantine, a Boeing worker who witnessed the event said in an email.
“Most of the area halted work in protest, crane crews blew their horns for an extended period of time, mechanics drove their rivet guns loud and the other employees started yelling ‘What’s wrong with this’ to the management crew and senior levels. Security was called and dispersed everyone,” the worker wrote.
“There is no one cleaning or disinfecting high touch areas, no hand sanitizer left, no way to work six feet apart,” another Boeing factory worker said in an email.
Said another: “We’ve run out of disinfectant wipes, respirators, and hand sanitizer. So we’ve been told to use the alcohol that we normally only use to clean the plane.”
In response, Boeing had said it was following the guidance of health authorities and continued to clean to “an enhanced standard” in high-touch areas at all company locations.
That approach changed abruptly Monday morning.
“The suspension of production operations will last 14 days, during which Boeing will continue to monitor government guidance and actions on COVID-19 and its associated impacts on all company operations. During this time, we will be conducting additional deep cleaning activities at impacted sites and establishing rigorous criteria for return to work,” Boeing said.
“This necessary step protects our employees and the communities where they work and live,” Boeing CEO and President Dave Calhoun said in the company’s statement. “We continue to work closely with public health officials, and we’re in contact with our customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who are affected by this temporary suspension. We regret the difficulty this will cause them, as well as our employees, but it’s vital to maintain health and safety for all those who support our products and services, and to assist in the national effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.”
Said the IAM union in its statement: “During this COVID-19 pandemic impacting our members, the citizens of Washington state and the world, we support this action and hope this will reduce the rate of infection within our membership at work and in the community at large.”
Gov. Inslee also supported the decision.
“I spoke with Boeing Commercial CEO Stan Deal this morning,” the governor said in a news release Monday. “I applaud Boeing’s decision to implement an orderly shutdown and continue to pay its workers during this difficult time. Now is the time for bold actions like these, and will continue to look at what can be done statewide.”
Puget Sound area-based employees who can work from home will continue to do so. Those who cannot work remotely will receive paid leave for the initial 10 working days of the suspension, the company said.
“A small contingent will remain on our sites to continue essential work such as security and proper storage of finished airplanes,” Deal said in an email to employees. He added that the company also is assessing the situation at Boeing’s South Carolina 787 assembly line. Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton already was closed due to the unrelated grounding of the Max model last year after two crashes.
In a statement Monday, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said: “Boeing employees are our neighbors and family members. They are Snohomish County’s number one employer, and we know how tough this decision must have been. But it’s the right one. We stand ready to support Boeing and its employees during this challenging time. We’re all in this together. I know Boeing with its world-class workforce will be back, stronger than ever, as quickly as it’s safe to do so.”
Many Boeing workers said they were relieved to learn the factories will close. But some were saddened and angry that “it took someone’s life for that to happen,” a Boeing worker said in an email.
Aerospace consultant Kevin Michaels called the decision a prudent move. “First, it addresses the concerns about employee well-being,” said Michaels, who is managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory. “Second, it strengthens the case for U.S. government support to Boeing. Finally, international travel and associated twin-aisle demand is gutted due to the COVID-19 crisis.”
The company on Monday also announced that its annual shareholders meeting, on April 27, will be online only.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods