EVERETT, Wash. — It appears that the majority of the 27,000 Boeing workers in Washington who’ve been off the job for nearly a month are back at work with company-provided COVID-19 protections.
On March 25, Boeing halted work at Puget Sound-area plants after more than 100 cases emerged among its 70,000-person work force, including one fatality connected to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The first two weeks off were paid, and for the rest of the time off many workers used unemployment benefits.
Aerospace companies including Boeing were included among Washington's "essential businesses" that could remain open during the state's stay-home order.
Boeing announced its return to work last week, citing new safety protocols such as staggering shifts and requiring face coverings and asking employees to wash hands frequently, perform "self-health checks" before coming to work, and staying home if they are ill.
But some workers told KING 5 News they didn’t see a need to go back to work yet, fearing that they are risking infection. Concerned workers also wondered if any airline is in a position to accept a new airplane. Global air traffic is down more than 90% as a result of coronavirus' hit to the economy.
“We worked hard to provide pathways for people to make choices,” says Jon Holden, president of District 751 of the Machinists union which represents about 30,000 Boeing workers in Washington state. “These are tough choices like everyone else, nobody wants to catch the virus, bring it home and spread it to the ones they love."
The Boeing workers Holden represents are by and large the employees who can’t work from home, unlike the bulk of Boeing’s 40,000 other workers who include engineers and finance and administrative jobs.
Holden's job is making sure the people who work directly on the airplanes are protected. Often those workers are in tight spaces inside of airplanes during assembly. Boeing says it’s committed to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) including high quality masks in spaces where two or more employees have to work closely together.
Those kinds of spaces can include wheel wells, lower cargo decks and electrical bays.
“This is hard work, you’re exerting a lot of energy, it’s heavy breathing,” says Holden. “ The masks can become moist, there has to be enough masks for people to switch out and get a new mask when they need it, and I’m concerned there is not enough supply for them to do that.”
Making those jobs even tougher is the elimination of fans. They keep workers cool, but they could also spread the virus.
Holden walked the factory Monday with other union leaders to make recommendations.
“I know our stewards are in there working hard to address these issues," Holden said. "The positive thing, is they are raising these concerns.”
Several workers reported problems, including shared computer work areas not being disinfected regularly, shortages of cleaning supplies and a lack of social distancing even in places marked on the floor with Xs, accusing the company of doing much of it for show and not taking the situation seriously.
Boeing says it’s working from guidelines defined by public health agencies.
Boeing says the company has 35 current, active cases of COVID-19 in Washington. Company spokeswoman Jessica Kowal says most of those infected workers were not onsite when they were considered infectious and they were not a result of “clusters,” meaning groups of workers who infected each other.
The company asks employees who feel sick to get a test, and if positive report that back where Boeing Health Services conducts contact tracing to other employees who’ve come into contact with that individual, defined as being with in six feet for 10 minutes.
At one point in March more than 1,000 employees who had been in contact were in paid quarantine, though Kowal believes none of those people who came into contact came down with the disease.
RELATED: Boeing resumes production across Puget Sound, but some workers say it's too soon amid coronavirus crisis