Boeing told employees Friday afternoon it will begin “a safe and orderly restart of limited operations” at a handful of its Washington state sites as early as Monday.
Out of about 30,000 employees idled by the shutdown, Boeing will recall only about 2,500 employees for this narrowly targeted resumption of work. The company said it will provide the workers with personal protective equipment, including masks, and enforce social distancing measures.
The news comes just five days after Boeing announced that its shutdown in the local plants to contain the spread of COVID-19 would be extended indefinitely. Affected employees had to either take vacation or sick leave, or apply for unemployment.
Those called back will be deployed at company defense programs — including the Navy’s P-8 anti-submarine plane built in Renton and the Air Force KC-46 tanker built in Everett — as well as maintenance operations at Moses Lake in support of the grounded 737 MAXs stored there.
In its message to employees, Boeing said that some other “essential labs and support teams will also resume to support critical customer needs.”
Boeing said the small scale of the return to work would allow it to ensure that “our personal protective equipment is readily available and we have all of the necessary safety measures in place to get back to our regular business.”
Before the initial two-week shutdown that took effect March 25, Boeing had come under increasing criticism from some employees worried by the growing number of co-workers who’d tested positive for the disease and by the death of one of them, 57-year-old quality assurance inspector Elton Washington.
Late Friday, a work crew on the KC-46 tanker program, which is based on the 767 commercial jet, got a message asking for quality assurance inspectors to volunteer to come back early next week.
“There will be new policies and procedures for social distancing and work area cleaning,” the message read. “If you are able to support continued production, please reach out to your manager.”
Boeing’s message to employees said that the company has “taken extra precautions and instituted new procedures to keep people safe and fight the spread of COVID-19.”
It said these will include:
- Employee wellness checks at the beginning of every shift.
- Staggered shift start times to reduce the flow of employees arriving and departing work.
- Visual controls such as floor markings and signage to create physical distance.
- Continued virtual meetings and employees working from home if they can.
- One person per row on site bus shuttles, and dining areas adjusted for physical distancing.
- Hand-washing stations in high-traffic areas and additional cleaning supplies available.
In addition, employees will be required to wear masks or face coverings.
“Employees who do not have a face covering or mask will be provided with one,” Boeing said.
Jon Holden, president of the International Association of Machinists union District 751, said the restart “certainly is positive as long as Boeing can provide a safe workplace.”
“Social distancing is going to be the toughest part,” he said. He added that certain work confined areas might require the use of higher grade N-95 masks.
Holden said that if any employee is in a higher-risk category or is concerned about risks to family members, they will have the option not to return to work and instead to take unemployment. “That will be up to the individual,” he said.
Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), sent a message to its members reminding them “to remain focused on personal and workplace safety.”
“The work on Boeing defense programs is important, but not nearly as important as the health and safety of ourselves, our co-workers and our families,” the SPEEA message said. “The company has assured SPEEA that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will be supplied to employees … It is vital everyone use PPEs and follow the distancing guidelines.”