BATH — Bath Iron Works union representatives say just 41% of BIW employees clocked in for their shift at the shipyard Tuesday morning, after BIW leadership confirmed an employee tested positive for coronavirus Sunday.

According to Tim Suitter, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers local S6, BIW’s largest union, employees were not making a unified statement by not coming into work. Instead, the decisions of many individual employees to keep themselves and their families safe.

Neither BIW officials nor union leaders responded requests for comment on how this employee reduction would affect production at the shipyard.

The shipyard had offered two weeks unpaid leave to workers who wished to stay home to avoid possible exposure to the virus.

Rob Hopper, a BIW employee for over six years, has both asthma and diabetes. He said he’s not concerned about getting sick. Instead, he took unpaid leave to protect his son, who has epilepsy.

“With a son with epilepsy, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Hopper. “For me, it wasn’t worth the risk.”

Hopper said he is expected to return to work next week but said he hopes the state or federal government forces the shipyard to close before then.

“I understand that companies have to make money, but I think, in the best interest of everyone, BIW should close their doors for a while,” said Hopper. “When people’s lives are at stake, you need to take some drastic action.”

David Arsenault, a BIW shipfitter of six months, hasn’t worked since Friday, March 13. He said he chose to stay home to keep both himself and his family safe.

“I have Addison’s disease, which means I have a weak immune system to begin with, and I have four kids at home,” said Arsenault.

Arsenault said he has used all his paid time off to stay home and is now taking unpaid leave. That leave runs out on March 30, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be forced to return to the shipyard regardless of whether the cases of coronavirus in Maine continue to increase.

“I enjoy working at BIW, but at this point, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Arsenault. “If I lose my job, I lose my job. I’d rather find work elsewhere than put my family at risk especially because coronavirus is already here.”

BIW issued a statement on its website Sunday confirming the shipyard’s first case of coronavirus. The company said it was notifying employees who were in close contact with the worker who tested positive, and that those employees would “complete a 14-day period of observation from their last contact.”

BIW spokesman David Hench told the Portland Press Herald the workers who were in close contact have been told to stay home while under observation. A union official said the company did not reveal the person’s name to them, but they believe it was a member of the shipyard’s labor relations staff.

Statewide, Maine health officials said 118 people have tested positive for the disease, and 3,014 people have tested negative as of Tuesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the disease caused by a coronavirus, COVID-19, is spread through person-to-person contact. Public health officials are urging everyone to practice good hygiene – washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer as a backup – as well as keeping a 6-foot buffer between others, avoiding large gatherings and staying home as much as possible.

Last Thursday, the James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy, told Bath Iron Works’ president to emphasize the shipyard’s need to stay open, regardless of the health risk to its 8,000 employees, because “Delivering or redelivering our ships to the fleet is a national need that is unwavering and crucial to our national security.”

On Monday Geurts’ letter was met with a statement Local S6 leaders issued to its members reaffirming their call for the shipyard to close and give its workers paid leave.

“We are hardworking men and women that have very important jobs of producing the very best manufactured ships to the Navy,” union leaders wrote. “With that said, we go home every night to our families, husbands, wives and children. Some of us or them have preexisting conditions that put us all at a greater risk of serious complications if diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.”

Last week Maine delegates joined union leaders in demanding the shipyard close to protect workers and their families from coronavirus as it spreads throughout the state.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden released a joint statement last Thursday in which they called on the Defense Department to do more to protect BIW employees from the coronavirus. They also vowed to provide the U.S. Department of Defense with any authority or funding needed to mitigate the virus’s spread while keeping the defense industrial base and national security strong.

“We are deeply concerned about the stability of the defense industrial base as the whole nation combats the current novel coronavirus outbreak,” the statement reads. “We are equally worried about the health and safety risks to the industrial base’s primary asset – its skilled workforce – as defense companies struggle to support our nation’s military while also managing the unique challenge we face today.”

Also on Thursday, Maine House Speaker Sarah Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, both Democrats, issued a joint statement urging the Defense Department to push back its scheduled deadlines for delivery of Bath-made warships, citing the virus pandemic.

Gideon met with union leaders again on Tuesday echoing those requests to the Department of Defense to extend deadlines for BIW and its competitors. Extended deadlines would give shipyard management the flexibility to implement measures to keep workers safe at BIW.

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