BATH — Bath Iron Works, one of Maine’s largest employers, has extended its unpaid leave offer to employees. The shipyard remains open, despite the fact that more than half of the workers aren’t showing up, according to a BIW union official.

Jessica Chubbuck-Goodwin, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S7, one of the shipyard’s largest unions, confirmed attendance rates at the shipyard continue to hover around 40% as of Thursday.

Chubbuck-Goodwin credited the attendance, in part, to schools and child care centers closing due to concerns over coronavirus.

“The few daycares that were staying open are now closing, which creates a domino effect for the employees who have children but now don’t have child care,” she said.

BIW initially offered employees unpaid leave from March 16 to 27, meaning employees would be expected to return to work Monday. BIW leadership extended its unpaid leave offer to employees through April 10, according to the company’s website.

The unpaid leave “is not intended for employees who have received a diagnosis and/or confirmed positive test for Coronavirus nor is it intended for employees with demonstrated symptoms consistent with Coronavirus, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who are subject to quarantine per a Medical Professional’s orders,” the announcement states

The shipyard reminded employees they are able to use paid time off, including sick time and vacation days, if unpaid leave is not a viable option for them.

BIW spokesman David Hench was unable to disclose how many employees have accepted the unpaid leave offer as well as how the low employee count affects production at the shipyard.

BIW confirmed the shipyard’s first case of coronavirus on Sunday. 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.”

Hench told the Portland Press Herald Monday 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.

BIW officials have not reported any additional coronavirus cases as of Thursday.

“If there are more confirmed cases (of coronavirus) at BIW I think you’ll see more people staying home,” said Chubbuck-Goodwin.

Statewide, Maine health officials said positive coronavirus cases rose to 155 on Thursday, an increase of 13 cases since Wednesday. Another 3,394 people have tested negative.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the disease caused by a coronavirus, COVID-19, is spread through person-to-person contact. Public health officials continue to urge 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.

While Chubbuck-Goodwin said the unpaid leave extension is “a step in the right direction,” the additional two weeks is a far cry from the unions’ ultimate demands of closing the shipyard to protect the 6,800 employees and giving every worker paid leave.

“As we continue to raise our concerns over safety with BIW and General Dynamics at all levels, we are also elevating those same concerns with the Navy and Defense Department on the need for relief when it comes to BIW,” union leaders wrote in a post on the Local S6 Facebook page Wednesday.

Those concerns were echoed by Maine delegates from both sides of the aisle last week.

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.

Maine House Speaker Sarah Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, both Democrats, also urged the Defense Department to push back its scheduled deadlines for delivery of Bath-made warships, citing the virus pandemic.

Last Thursday, 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 employees, because, “Delivering or redelivering our ships to the fleet is a national need that is unwavering and crucial to our national security.”

Geurts pointed to President Trump’s coronavirus guidelines, which urge people to work from home when possible to avoid spreading the disease, but states “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry … you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

BIW is considered a critical infrastructure industry because it builds destroyers for the U.S. Navy. The Bath shipyard has ongoing contracts with the Navy for 11 destroyers, some of which are under construction.

Officials from Locals S6 and S7 countered by explaining BIW employees are not military personnel, and making warships is not an essential service needed for daily survival.

“The work we do is extremely important, but it’s not on the same level as hospitals and other medical care facilities,” said Chubbuck-Goodwin. “It’s time we all work together to do what’s best for the workers.”

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