EVERETT — Five employees at Boeing’s Everett plant tested positive for COVID-19 this week, sparking fears that an outbreak could sweep through the factory, putting thousands of workers at risk. The Everett site, which operates three shifts, employs more than 35,000 workers in its factories, engineering offices, delivery center and other buildings.
As of Wednesday, Boeing Health Services and local public health authorities had confirmed five cases among Boeing Everett employees, company spokeswoman Jessica Kowal told The Daily Herald.
“When Boeing learns of a case, suspected or confirmed, those people go into quarantine,” Kowal said. The big plant at Paine Field houses the assembly lines for the 747, 767, KC-46 tanker, 787 and 777 series.
In addition, any workers potentially exposed to the virus are contacted by Boeing Health Services and asked to self-quarantine, Kowal said.
The airplane maker reported the first of the five factory workers who tested positive on Monday.
The rising number of infections has raised concern among some hands-on factory workers, who cannot work from home. They complain they haven’t been told where infected employees were working when they fell ill.
However, pinpointing those locations could violate medical privacy laws and protections, Boeing said.
“We’re trying to balance the privacy of each individual who may have a health issue with transparency of information to other workers,” Kowal said.
“Their work space is deep-cleaned and so are work spaces of others who may have been exposed — this is in addition to regular cleaning of high-touch surface areas,” she said.
Some workers say they’re unclear about who’s eligible to be quarantined and if they’ll be paid during that period.
Kowal said the decision to quarantine a worker is based on guidance from Boeing Health Services and public health officials.
Workers who’ve been asked to be quarantined by a medical professional might be able to telecommute. For those whose job demands they be on site, the company will authorize an “absence with pay” for the quarantine period, she said.
Workers who are simply concerned about being on site may use paid time off or vacation benefits to cover their absence, Kowal said. With management approval, employees can take time off without pay, she said.
In addition, Boeing is encouraging workers, where possible, to maintain a distance of six feet when working in enclosed areas, per social-distancing health guidelines.
Extra precautions include “avoiding close contact with co-workers and giving each other more distance during meetings and break areas,” Kowal said.
Earlier this month, Boeing said it is taking multiple steps to curtail the virus’ spread, including reducing face-to-face gatherings and using telecommunications when possible. The jet maker has cut nonessential travel and imposed a hiring freeze.
Some workers have been able to avoid the Everett factory, a sprawling campus that has its own fire department, security force, power plant and medical clinic.
“The engineers can work remotely and some of them already are,” said Bill Dugovich, a spokesman for SPEEA, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. The union represents engineers and technical workers.
On the other hand, said Dugovich, “technical workers are more likely to interface with the factory and have to be there.”
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Federal and state health experts have said the fast-moving virus has the potential to double the number of infected people every five to seven days if containment steps aren’t taken.
Janice Podsada; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods