More than 27,000 Boeing workers return this week to their jobs at the Everett factory, shown here, and other facilities across the state. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

More than 27,000 Boeing workers return this week to their jobs at the Everett factory, shown here, and other facilities across the state. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Wary Boeing workers return to the assembly lines in Everett

Promising vigorous cleaning and social distancing, the company has opened facilities throughout the state.

EVERETT — After a three-week shutdown, thousands of Boeing workers are returning to their jobs at the sprawling south Everett campus and other locations in Washington.

By the end of the week, more than 27,000 Boeing employees will have resumed production of the 747, 767, KC-46 tanker, 787 and 777 models, all built at Paine Field in Everett, and at 737 facilities in Renton and Moses Lake.

When it announced plans last week to restart operations throughout the state, Boeing promised its workforce more cleaning supplies, face masks, voluntary on-site wellness checks and staggered shift times to reduce crowding.

Workers with a fever of 100 degrees or greater will be sent home, according to leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 751, who held a video conference on Monday.

In photographs supplied by Boeing, workers armed with spray bottles wiped down doorways, sinks and computer equipment. Floors in high-traffic areas, including cafeterias and break rooms, are marked with social-distancing reminders.

Still, some Boeing workers say they’re fearful of an outbreak of COVID-19. The precautions, they say, aren’t sufficient in areas where airplane assembly requires them to be shoulder to shoulder. They asked not to be identified because it’s against company policy to speak to media without permission.

“In our work environment, where we work in close quarters and often with one or two others, it’s pretty much not possible to distance from each other,” an Everett Boeing worker said in an email.

Other workers say they plan to sit out the call-back as long as possible and use vacation days, sick leave, unpaid leave and unemployment benefits to stay away.

On March 25, Boeing suspended operations around the state after weeks of employee complaints about Boeing’s response to a growing number of COVID-19 infections. At the time, 17 Puget Sound-area employees were infected, and a union shop steward at the Everett plant, Elton Washington, had died of COVID-19.

Not enough cleaning supplies, not enough cleaning crews and no way to socially distance in tight work spaces were the most common grievances cited on social media and in correspondence to The Daily Herald.

Similar critiques reappeared earlier this week on social media.

Still, other workers said it’s too early too assess Boeing’s second-round response to COVID-19.

A team cleans shared work stations at the Boeing factory in Renton as defense-related operations restarted last week. (Boeing)

A team cleans shared work stations at the Boeing factory in Renton as defense-related operations restarted last week. (Boeing)

“It remains to be seen how the new safety measurements implemented are going to work based on the first day so far,” an Everett Boeing worker said in an email to a Herald reporter.

State, county and city leaders on both sides of the aisle applauded Boeing’s decision to re-start production, with many saying the Chicago-based company is taking the lead in re-opening the state’s economy. Boeing is “serving as a model for all employers,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, in a statement.

“My hat’s off to Boeing,” Schoesler said, “This means 30,000 workers in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties will be bringing in paychecks. But it also means that aerospace suppliers all across Washington will be back to work.”

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers had a similar response.

“Boeing started up operations at the Everett plant again. We’re very pleased with that,” Somers said. “They’ve put in very significant protection measures for their employees — personal protective equipment, everybody will be wearing face masks, sanitation equipment, social distancing measures, and so we are very hopeful that that will be successful.”

Somers praised the company for working during the shutdown “to really come up with a system to protect their employees and get things rolling again.” He and others plan to monitor the situation, Somers said. If successful, Boeing’s system could be employed for use in “broader sectors and businesses.”

Among those Boeing employees who are taking a wait-and-see approach is an Everett factory worker in his late 50s.

“I’m not going back until the governor has lifted his stay-at-home order,” the worker said.

“Of the 12,000 cases in Washington state, almost 40% have been in my age group, and out of that 8% have died,” said the Everett worker. He’s upset that Boeing sounded the factory bell before Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order expired on May 4. “I’ve filed my second week of unemployment benefits,” he said.

Boeing workers walk outside Boeing’s Everett assembly plant on Tuesday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Boeing workers walk outside Boeing’s Everett assembly plant on Tuesday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A “fair number” of other workers have elected to stay home for the time being, said another Everett employee who returned to work this week.

They want to see how things go at the plant before they elect to clock in, the worker said.

“We greatly appreciate being able to return but just question the risk before the state has re-opened — even though Boeing has been deemed an essential business,” the worker said in an email.

“There are cleaning supplies around but more are definitely needed,” he said of conditions at the Everett plant. “And it is our responsibility to clean areas we use, such as computer stations, tools, areas we work, etc. We will also perform a general clean-up at the end of shifts. We are not aware of Boeing actually performing the deep cleaning it stated it did during the shutdown. We believe — at least in my location — they did not.”

Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Kowal emphasized that reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission “involves a partnership between the company and all employees.”

“Our facilities teams are doing enhanced cleaning throughout the day of common areas including restrooms and high-touch points,” Kowal said in an email, adding that “employees are being provided with cleaning supplies to use in break rooms and at shared work stations before and after personal use.”

On a grassy berm near Mukilteo that overlooks the Everett plant, a steady hum from inside the factories greeted a group of morning shift workers pulling into the employee parking lot. Farther north, near 94th Street SW and Airport Way, the parking lot outside a Boeing office was mostly empty. Boeing workers who are able to telecommute or work from home continue to do so, an IAM District 751 union leader said during Monday’s video conference.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “that’s not the case for 99% of our members.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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