You can’t build jets while working from home.
As Washington state and the nation struggle to contain the coronavirus outbreak, manufacturers like Boeing and the state’s many other aerospace companies are on the front line of a fight to stop the spread of the disease while avoiding a destructive economic collapse of our economy.
As of Wednesday evening, five workers at Boeing’s Everett widebody-commercial-jet plant have tested positive for the coronavirus. They remain in quarantine under medical care while the circle of employees who were in direct contact with them have been sent home to self-quarantine.
While the jet maker tries to control the outbreak, other manufacturers in the region are trying to keep the virus out of their factories and making contingency plans.
Meanwhile, workers who live with elderly or medically vulnerable relatives have to brace against the fear that by going to work, they could bring home the virus to especially sensitive people..
Matt Yerbic, CEO at commercial-airplane overhaul and repair company Aviation Technical Services (ATS), which employs about 1,000 people at its Everett jet-maintenance facility, expressed the excruciating dilemma facing manufacturers as they strive to keep people safe while maintaining their jobs.
“We have to be thoughtful about how we support anyone in that position and yet not put ourselves out of business, which is also scary,” Yerbic said.
The first step, according to Yerbic and officials at other manufacturing companies, is open communication with employees.
Boeing has a telephone hotline that employees can call and a website with the latest on the virus that’s updated daily.
About 36,000 people work at the sprawling Everett site, including the factory workers working in three shifts and offices full of engineers and employees with white-collar business functions.
Site leader and Boeing Vice President Jeff Klemann informed all Puget Sound-area employees in an email Tuesday evening of the cases confirmed that night in the Everett factory.
To try to allay concern among employees, Klemann also laid out the steps Boeing is taking when employees are diagnosed with COVID-19 or at risk of exposure:
• Boeing Health Services makes sure the infected employee gets treatment and assesses the risk to others who were in contact with the person.
• The Health Services team directly contacts any employees determined to have been potentially exposed to the virus through the infected employee. These people are asked to stay home and self-quarantine.
• Deep cleaning is performed in the work spaces of employees with the virus and those who may have been potentially exposed. Cleaning across the site has also been stepped up, focusing on high-touch areas.
• Employees will return to work only if cleared by Boeing Health Services.
Joelle Denney, vice president of human resources at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in an interview that medical experts have assured Boeing that the risk is low from simply sharing the same indoor environment, such as a factory, an office or a mall, with a person who has the virus.
Nevertheless, Boeing has stepped up cleaning across the site, she said.
“We feel the factory is clean and a safe place for our employees to work,” Denney said. But she conceded that “there’s still fear.”
“There’s fear in the community. There’s fear among our employees,” she said.
Some Everett employees have complained about not being told in which exact area of the factory those who’ve been infected were working. Denney said Boeing isn’t providing that information because it has to balance respecting the privacy of the infected individuals and being transparent to other workers.
She said all those who need to know because of potential close exposure have been informed.
“If you haven’t been contacted, our medical experts have determined you are low risk, you’ve not been in that exposure area,” she said.
Klemann in his email told employees that public health officials warn “it’s likely more cases will be confirmed in the days and weeks ahead.” Yet he insisted that “our team in Everett and across Puget Sound is well prepared.”
Pam Tvrdy-Cleary, spokeswoman for Collins Aerospace, which has a large facility in Everett manufacturing aircraft interior systems and structures, said company leaders meet on a daily basis to review the virus threat.
Aside from additional cleaning in the factories and guidance on hygiene for employees, she said, “there’s no change to operations at this point.”
Tim Kirk, vice president of aerospace at Toray Composite Materials America in Frederickson, Pierce County, said the company is limiting the number of visitors to the plant. And though Toray’s parent company is Japanese with many workers on site from Japan, only business-critical travel is now permitted.
At ATS, Yerbic said he’s taken the threat from coronavirus very seriously since soon after it appeared in China. “We had customers in Asia,” he said. “We heard how bad it was.”
Yerbic said the company has opened up various channels of communication to keep employees informed and his team meets daily to assess the dynamic situation.
Aside from providing hand sanitizer and reminders to employees about hand-washing, ATS tries to avoid having too many people in the building at the same time.
To that end, it has separated the work shifts, leaving a gap between when one group of workers leaves and the next arrives. And the factory is divided into zones.
“People stay in their zones,” said Yerbic. “The biggest gathering right now is 20 to 30 people and we are trying to minimize that.”
As workers struggle with fear of infection, there’s the separate fear that the virus will hurt the business and cost people their jobs. ATS’ customers are the airlines who send their planes for overhaul and who are now suffering from a dramatic fall in air travel.
“If they are not flying airplanes, they are not going to have airplanes to maintain, which is the work we do,” said Yerbic.
The challenge, through all the uncertainty, is to continue production and to maintain the sector’s high-paying jobs while striving to keep everyone safe.
Boeing’s Denney said shutting down production is an option.
“If there comes a point where we don’t feel it’s safe, we’ll make that call,” she said. “Safety is our top priority.”