EVERETT — The Boeing Co. will gradually resume commercial airplane production throughout Washington, including at the Everett assembly plant, beginning next week.
More than 27,000 employees will return to work starting Monday to resume building the 747, 767, 777 and 787 models, a significant step toward reviving the state’s stalled aerospace industry. The move comes less than a month after a Boeing worker at the Everett plant, Elton Washington, died of COVID-19.
Boeing received “the go-ahead to resume operations from the state of Washington,” the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) union told members in a letter sent Thursday.
Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday afternoon that he had not yet talked to top Boeing officials but was “glad to see that Boeing is committing to robust social distancing” and enhanced safety protocols. At a news conference in Olympia, Inslee said state officials would monitor the company’s plan to ensure workers and their families are protected from infection.
Operations at Boeing’s Puget Sound-area locations have been suspended since March 25, three days after the Everett plant worker died. Prior to the man’s death, numerous workers on the factory floor complained to news media about a lack of cleaning supplies and a shortage of cleaning crews.
In a news release, the Chicago-based company said it would take extra precautions to keep workers safe and to blunt the spread of COVID-19.
In response to the growing threat of the new coronavirus, the jet manufacturer suspended operations last month at Puget Sound-area facilities including Everett. The company restarted some defense production this week, returning about 2,500 employees to work on the Everett-built KC-46 tanker, a derivative of the 767, and the Renton-built P-8 anti-submarine airplane, a derivative of the 737.
“The health and safety of our employees, their families and communities is our shared priority,” said Stan Deal, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in the news release.
“This phased approach ensures we have a reliable supply base, our personal protective equipment is readily available and we have all of the necessary safety measures in place to resume essential work for our customers,” Deal said.
Boeing said it would impose staggered shift times to reduce the flow of workers arriving and departing; require workers to wear masks; and provide personal protective equipment to employees working in areas where physical separation cannot be maintained for an extended period.
Employees will undergo wellness checks at the beginning of every shift and will be asked to perform self-health checks before coming to work. Employees who can work from home will continue to do so, Boeing said.
The company says it will practice enhanced cleaning and provide hand-washing stations in high traffic areas along with extra cleaning supplies.
Employees who work in Renton on the 737, and in Everett on the 747, 767 and 777, will return as early as third shift on Monday, with all employees returning to work by Thursday, the company said. Production of the 787 in Everett is expected to resume Thursday.
Boeing also said it will resume work toward restarting production of the grounded 737 Max, but it did not provide a timeline.
In response to Boeing’s back-to-work order, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 751, released a statement Thursday saying its “top priority remains the safety of our members and your families.”
“You have the right to a safe work environment and should be provided with all the proper personal protective equipment,” the union advised members.
“We are asking every member to take responsibility to ensure you are safe as you return to work,” the union said. “While many changes in the work environment may be inconvenient or make your job more cumbersome, know that it is to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while also protecting you and your co-workers in the factory.”
It also urged members to to take the use of personal protective equipment and handwashing “seriously.”
Those who are unable to return to work because they’re caring for children or an ill family member — or who are high-risk or are simply “concerned with working on site due to Coronavirus” — can use vacation, sick leave or take an unpaid leave of absence without having to exhaust benefits or face discipline, the union advised.
SPEEA said Boeing assured the union’s leadership that all workers will be supplied with personal protective equipment.
Employees will be given cloth face coverings if they don’t have their own, a Boeing spokeswoman, Jessica Kowal, told The Daily Herald.
“Boeing will also provide masks, as appropriate, and other required personal protective equipment to employees working in areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained for an extended period,” Kowal said.
Some workers might be issued high-grade N95 respirators, depending on workplace duties, Kowal said.
“The supply of N95 respirators is understandably prioritized for health care facilities,” Kowal said. “To ensure that the work environment within our facilities is as safe as possible, we have evaluated how to best make use of the limited supplies of materials, including N95 respirators.
“In addition to work where an N95 respirator is normally required by safety and health regulations, Boeing is making best use of our supplies by providing N95 respirators for use in deep cleaning of areas where an employee suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 had been working, by first responders and for limited use at flight training centers,” Kowal said.
In its letter, SPEEA told members: “While we certainly hope all safety precautions are in place, experience tells us lapses will occur. This is human nature. The faster these lapses are reported and corrected, the safer the workplace becomes. The last thing Boeing and its employees need at this difficult time is a COVID-19 crisis created by someone not wearing proper personal protection equipment or not following distancing guidelines.”
Meanwhile, production at Boeing’s 787 assembly plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, remains temporarily suspended. The site, which employs about 7,000, ceased operations earlier this month.
Janice Podsada; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods