In response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, Boeing said Monday it will suspend its Puget Sound factory operations as well as its maintenance activities on the grounded 737 MAX airplanes at Moses Lake for 14 days starting Wednesday.
The company said it will focus on a “safe and orderly temporary suspension of operations.” It instructed production workers to continue to report for their assigned shifts Monday and said managers will provide them guidance on their role in the shutdown process.
During the suspension of operations, Boeing said, it will conduct “additional deep-cleaning activities at impacted sites and establishing rigorous criteria for return to work.”
A senior Boeing executive, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the decision to shut down was not triggered directly by the death of a Boeing Everett worker on Sunday, but was “based on the rate of increase of the coronavirus cases in the broader Seattle community as well as inside the plant.”
“The recommendation to shut down initially came out of Seattle and was quickly accepted” by top leadership in Chicago, he said. “There wasn’t a lot of debate. It was clear the time had come to do something.”
Everett mayor Cassie Franklin welcomed the temporary plant closure and thanked Boeing “for making what I know was not an easy decision.”
“Closing the production facility, however, will further reduce the potential to spread COVID-19,” Franklin said. “I thank them for taking this step to help keep our residents and workers healthy and safe.”
Though company policy provides for paid leave covering only five working days due to a shutdown caused by some external event — typically weather-related — Boeing said it will double that to 10 working days, so employees receive full pay for the entire two-week break.
One analyst said the closure could well extend beyond this initial suspension.
“I think people would be very pleasantly surprised if it was just two weeks,” Ken Herbert, an industry analyst with investment bank Canaccord Genuity, said in an interview.
In an internal message to employees on Monday, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun wrote: “This is a time like no other for our company, our industry, our communities. The fight to save lives by halting the spread of COVID-19 around the world is demanding actions that few of us could have imagined even a few weeks ago.”
The decision comes a day after a worker from the 777 line died of a COVID-19 infection, the first such death at Boeing.
As of Monday, 32 Boeing employees were confirmed to have the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, 25 of them at its Puget Sound area facilities: 18 in Everett, 5 in Renton, 1 in Auburn and 1 at the local headquarters in Longacres.
That’s out of just over 70,000 employees in the state, with about 36,000 in Everett.
Workers had expressed growing concern last week about the spread of COVID-19 and the difficulty of maintaining infection-prevention protocols in the company’s plants. Some other major manufacturers, notably the Big Three auto companies, said last week they would suspend production at their plants.
The senior Boeing executive said management had struggled with the decision to suspend work until this weekend because executives sought to protect jobs, aiming to keep “both the supply chain and the workforce intact” so the company can recover once the virus threat passes.
“You want to keep these jobs open and bridge to the recovery, but not at the cost of putting people at additional risk,” the executive said. “We’re balancing keeping livelihoods open versus keeping people safe. These are not easy choices.”
The surge of employee concern about the danger inside the factories was also a factor, he said.
By the weekend, discontent within the factory and anger at management for not shutting down had grown to a near-mutinous pitch. Many employees speaking with the Seattle Times accused the company of recklessly endangering lives and said that the protective cleaning measures they saw within the factories fell far short of Boeing’s public announcements.
Cleaning protocols vs reality
There has been a huge disconnect between what Boeing has insisted for the past week was a safe work environment and what employees are saying about the reality they saw on the shop floor.
Boeing arranged an interview Saturday with Beth Schryer, vice president of facilities for the entire company, to describe the “enhanced cleaning” Boeing has been doing inside its Puget Sound facilities and the further “deep cleaning” that’s done when there is a specific risk such as a confirmed or potential COVID-19 case.
The enhanced cleaning consists of janitorial crews coming around twice a day to spray and wipe high-touch areas such as handrails and door knobs. She said the deep cleaning involves leaving wet disinfectant on surfaces for a period of up to 10 minutes before wiping, and any such risk area is cordoned off from use by anyone else until that’s done.
However, she said, the janitorial crews are not trained to clean inside planes or to disinfect aircraft parts. That work is supposed to be done by the mechanics who work in the area, with guidance from the factory floor “health and safety team,” she said.
Workers are also supposed to clean their tools, computers, break areas and kitchenettes themselves, said Schryer.
Many workers describe a different reality inside the local factories.
Interviewed that same day, a mechanic on the 767 jet assembly line in Everett, who asked not to be identified to protect his job, said “they are not doing any of that.”
“I have not seen a single employee clean inside an airplane, where the majority of employees spend their day working in confined spaces in groups of up to eight people,” he said.
He also said that after a member of his crew was sent home Wednesday with symptoms and was tested for COVID-19 on Thursday, no action was taken pending the results of the test. “There was no deep cleaning,” the mechanic said. “We were still required to work in the same area.”
Asked about the level of discontent among the workers in the plants, Schryer said that “the general attitude I am hearing is that people … are positive and supportive of being part of the Boeing Company and appreciate what we are doing to enhance the cleaning.”
She said this was the response she found walking the factory floor on Friday and Saturday. But this wasn’t Everett; it was the Boeing factory where she is based in Mesa, Arizona. She conceded that while “she has a lot of direct channels into Everett,” she has not been to the Puget Sound region since the outbreak began.
In the local factories here, many were reluctantly going to work because they needed the paycheck but were increasingly worried about the potential danger. The death of the flight line worker on Sunday heightened that concern.
On Monday, a manager in Everett who also asked not to be identified contacted The Times, welcoming the shutdown.
“We’re finally doing the right thing,” he wrote.
Further action if needed
In a statement Monday, the company said, “These actions are being taken to ensure the well-being of employees, their families and the local community, and will include an orderly shutdown” that takes account of Boeing’s customers and suppliers.
Calhoun told employees Boeing will work with “our customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who are affected by this temporary suspension,” and is trying to minimize the impact “on the company’s ability to deliver and support our defense and space programs, as well as airline and maintenance, repair and overhaul customers who rely on critical distribution support.”
He added that the company “will continue to work closely with public health officials.”
Herbert, the aerospace analyst, said that following the collapse of demand from airlines, the shutdown of production now adds the risk of breakdowns in the supply chain if suppliers have to stop delivering parts.
“The best case scenario is it’s just two weeks and you get some sort of bailout or some sort of stimulus package that injects a bunch of cash into Boeing and they’re effectively able to keep paying suppliers,” Herbert said.
However, he said, some suppliers will be in trouble if it lasts longer and Boeing cannot pay them. And there is enough uncertainty in the situation to stoke pessimism.
Boeing said it planned to begin reducing production activity Monday and projects the suspension of operations will begin Wednesday at sites across the region.
Calhoun told employees that during the suspension management “will continue to monitor conditions at all our sites and continue to take action where necessary to comply with local guidance and combat the coronavirus spread.”
He closed his message with an assurance on the future of the company.
“I want to thank you, personally, for your commitment and your resilience. The uncertainty this global pandemic represents touches every one of us in some way,” he wrote. “The one thing I am certain of is that the Boeing team will emerge from this crisis to continue leading our industry.”
In a separate internal message, Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said that over the next few days Boeing will monitor the situation at its production facilities in South Carolina, where one case of COVID-19 has been reported.
“We will also assess the impact on deliveries of necessary parts,” Deal wrote. “We will take further action if needed.”
He added that with airlines around the world drastically reducing their flying and parking airplanes, “the situation is dynamic and may be one of the toughest that we have faced in a generation.”
The International Association of Machinists (IAM) union in a message to its members looked beyond the 14-day stoppage.
The District 751 leadership said it is working with the state Employment Security Department and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office “on details of how those members in high-risk categories based on their age or underlying health conditions will have the opportunity to stay home from work and be provided unemployment insurance benefits.”
Seattle Times reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this story.