By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Classified as essential workers, Boeing employees have continued to go into the aircraft factories for weeks, weighing risks to the safety of themselves and their loved ones against the need for a paycheck, and relying on the efficacy of newly defined company safety protocols.
So far, so good.
Five weeks after factory workers returned to work at Boeing following a pandemic-driven shutdown, the safety measures the company put in place have largely worked and constrained the spread of the COVID-19 infection.
The coronavirus has delivered catastrophic economic damage to Boeing’s business. Management has announced thousands of job cuts — with details of the initial round of local layoffs expected as early as Wednesday.
Yet controlling the spread of the virus within the workforce, at least for now, is Boeing’s tentative first step toward stability.
It’s not easy. Inside the airplane factories, workers are coping with a strangely isolating workplace, where the coronavirus threat demands that they be masked and gloved and avoid physical contact with each other.
On the flight line in Renton, where crews are working outdoors to rewire each already-built but still-grounded 737 Max to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wiring separation requirements, an inspector described a feeling of family-like connection and protectiveness among his work crew.
They work together rewiring each Max over two days, then another plane is rolled into their stall and they repeat. Familiar with each other’s home circumstances and their adherence to precautions, they have contact with few other employees.
“We trust the people in our crew,” the inspector said. “We’re trying to keep our distance. Everyone wants to be safe. The last thing you want is to bring this home to your family.”
“If someone new shows up at our stall, it’s 20 questions,” he added. “Why are you here? Do you have kids at home? What are they doing to maintain social distancing?”
Like all the shop-floor employees interviewed for this story, he asked not to be identified because he spoke without company authorization.
Though Boeing’s sprawling factories are difficult environments to regulate, company data show just nine current, active COVID-19 cases among employees at its Puget Sound-area facilities and one more at Moses Lake, for a total of 10 in the Washington workforce of approximately 71,000 people.
Of those nine active employee cases, five have not been in the workplace while infected, Boeing said.
Just before the monthlong shutdown of its local factories in late March, which followed Everett quality inspector Elton Washington’s death from the disease, Boeing reported 25 cases among employees at Puget Sound-area facilities.
On the lookout for workplace transmission
Spokesperson Jessica Kowal said that in the weeks since workers returned to the factories — mirroring what’s occurred in the Puget Sound-area population as a whole — Boeing’s local “case rates have remained stable or declined.”
She said there are not only fewer cases, but when new cases arise they have many fewer close contacts because employees are mostly adhering to the safety standards.
“By and large, people recognize this is important,” she said.
Jon Holden, district 751 president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), said the union is watching closely for any shift from transmission of the virus within the local community to transmission within the workplace.
“So far, we haven’t seen that,” said Holden. “That’s critical to us. It will be a different story if we see large flare-ups in different shops … We are monitoring that closely and looking for signs of that.”
Some more-vulnerable employees continue to fear for their health, especially around teammates who aren’t strictly observing the safety measures. Yet interviews with a range of workers who previously expressed worry about conditions in the factories suggest a positive shift and that most employees are taking the coronavirus precautions seriously.
For everyone, wearing the masks all day and conforming to the other restrictions is a burden.
“It’s a pain in the butt,” said a mechanic on the 777 line in Everett. “It slows everything down.”
But he said the dramatic cut to Boeing’s jet production rates due to the economic impact of the coronavirus has taken the pressure off.
Boeing’s factory-cleaning regimen, which he found inadequate previously, has stepped up: “Now they are actually doing it,” he said.
Another Everett employee, whose parts-supply job requires him to visit various locations around the factory, said he feels it’s now “as safe as we ever can be,” given that the work sometimes requires mechanics to work in confined spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
He said the safety restrictions are “annoying,” but he tries his best to stick to the protocols. When he’s lifting some heavy boxes, “I put my mask down so I can breathe a little.”
Even as the spread of the virus seems to have been checked inside Boeing, providing some relief to employees, the economic devastation it has inflicted on the company’s business still looms over every head.
Employees are bracing for the first round of layoff notices this week. Boeing has already said it plans to cut more than 15% of its local workforce, via a combination of retirements and voluntary and involuntary layoffs.
About 1,200 IAM members accepted the voluntary layoff package recently offered, said the IAM’s Holden. That won’t be enough to avoid involuntary layoffs. Boeing wants to cut upward of 10,000 jobs locally.
“We are concerned about the involuntary layoffs and how deep it goes,” said Holden. “I’m waiting to hear.”
One older employee, a mechanic who works on the 737 Max inside the Renton factory, unlike most of the others interviewed, said he’s unhappy with the safety conditions.
He has an underlying health condition that leaves him vulnerable to COVID-19 and is anxious about the risks. He is constantly annoyed by workmates failing to keep six feet away or not wearing their masks properly.
He said some employees view the coronavirus “as some kind of made-up political ploy.” He’s found managers unsympathetic when he has complained.
“I don’t feel safe,” he said.
Yet he said he couldn’t afford to volunteer for a layoff.
“It’s not a good time in the economy to retire,” he said. “I’ve got to suck it up and stay away from people.”
Another Renton employee, a member of the white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said that while he thinks most of the workers are making a concerted effort to abide by the guidelines, “there’s never 100% compliance on anything.”
Ray Goforth, executive director of SPEEA, said he’s heard of isolated instances of individuals not taking the protection measures seriously. But he said Boeing management has been responsive to union complaints about such safety lapses and overall seems to be doing a creditable job of enforcing the rules.
“It’s gone better than I expected,” said Goforth. “After a while, people begin to get lazy. We’re dealing with human nature.”
Boeing’s Kowal said the company will continue to closely monitor the situation, working with state health officials.
A mechanic who works in the Auburn parts-fabrication plant, and who has vulnerable elderly family members in her home, is one of those employees who remains anxious about the risk from the virus — even though she recognizes that conditions are better than they were before the March shutdown.
“If people follow the rules, they’ll be safe,” she said. “But just being here, we have some measure of risk.”
She, too, complains of some people who consider COVID-19 “a political talking point” instead of a health threat.
And she struggles to understand why the work is still deemed essential when no customers are asking for airplanes. Echoing the older worker inside the Renton factory, she said she and many co-workers have little to do.
She said that for the first time in her career she’s been impressed with Boeing management’s efforts to maintain employment through the Max grounding and now the broader production cuts.
“But you know the hammer is going to fall,” she said. “It’s a difficult time.”