When Boeing workers returned en masse Tuesday to the airplane factories in the Puget Sound region after a four-week shutdown, they found a changed workplace, cleaner and with a series of safety protocols in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Even as Boeing faces a drastic collapse in its business due to the near disappearance of air travel, management instructed about 27,000 factory employees to return to work this week. Yet with the coronavirus still threatening lives nationwide, the first to return came back with varying levels of unease.

“Our members have some tough decisions to make personally on whether they can remain in the workplace or not,” said Jon Holden, district 751 president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

In interviews Wednesday, some employees said Boeing had significantly stepped up its protections for the workforce. A mechanic on the 767 program in Everett, who had been very unhappy at the lax safety protocols in Everett before last month’s shutdown, said Wednesday that “Boeing has definitely put in an effort to make things better.”

Boeing said it has deep-cleaned more than 1,500 restrooms, deployed thousands of gallons of sanitizer and procured hundreds of thousands of surgical-type masks and face coverings as well as hundreds of cleaning kits.

“It makes me feel safer,” said the 767 mechanic.

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Yet others said it wasn’t enough, and questioned why they are going back to work when the virus is not yet under control in the community.

“It’s better than it was, but I’m not satisfied,” said a mechanic on the 777 flight line in Everett. “It risks the coronavirus cases ramping back up again and undoing all we’ve achieved by staying at home.”

Conrad Chun, vice president of communications for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said he’s heard from managers that “employees have been really upbeat and ready to get back to work in the factory.”

“We are making really good progress, recognizing tens of thousands of people are returning to an environment with new requirements and processes since a month ago,” said Chun. “We understand employees and their families have concerns, we’re doing our best to address them.”

A tough test

Boeing, the first large employer in the state to do such a worker recall, is essentially a test case of whether the U.S. economy can safely handle a return to work while the coronavirus pandemic is still uncontained. The complex industrial environment of an aircraft manufacturer makes it a tough test.

At a trustee meeting Monday for the Valley Medical Center hospital in Renton, one community member on the board asked if the return to work at Boeing’s nearby plant could again raise the level of stress on the local health care system.

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“There’s concern about any large employer that goes back,” said Valley Medical spokeswoman Liz Nolan in an interview. “Somebody has to be first. As you talk about what recovery (after the pandemic) looks like, there are questions about how you do it so you don’t overwhelm the system or create a second surge.”

The initial days of the Boeing experiment won’t be easy to assess, because a significant number of employees chose to stay home this week. They took advantage of a Boeing directive that allows them seven days of excused leave without pay based on COVID-19 concerns.

Those workers will still qualify for unemployment benefits for the extra week, if they can make the case to Employment Security that they or some family members at home are at high risk because of age or a medical condition.

However, the rules on eligibility have been adjusted several times. A checklist provided by Employment Security was changed to add a requirement for eligibility that to be judged “high risk,” a doctor must have told the applicant to stay home.

Holden of the IAM said each employee must choose for themselves how to weigh the risk in light of their family’s health concerns and their economic situation.

“The new environmental controls will help — sanitation of the workplace, masks, and gloves, the cleaning of the break areas — but they really have to keep that up,” Holden added. “It’s a monumental task inside our factories with thousands of people. It’s a struggle.”

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He said all his members should know that if they cannot be in the workplace due to their health circumstances, they can stay out. And that if they do go to work and find that safety measures aren’t being followed, they can invoke an “imminent danger” clause in their contract and demand that work in their area stop until the safety issue is dealt with.

Disregarding the rules

The calculus of the return to work varied from one individual to another.

The 777 flight line mechanic said financial pressures outweighed his concerns about the virus this week because during the shutdown, like a lot of people navigating the unemployment insurance system, he still hasn’t got a check. “I’ve used all my savings during the shutdown,” he said.

A 777 quality inspector went back Tuesday and promptly decided he wouldn’t go back again until next week. He wasn’t impressed with the new safety regime and took leave without pay on Wednesday. “This is not worth it to me and my family,” he said.

A mechanic on 777 systems installation said the Everett parking lot on Wednesday afternoon was not nearly as full as usual, in part because 787 workers don’t return until Thursday night and others have chosen not to return.

He said many of the safety improvements are good, but was frustrated that although social distancing was exercised on the factory floor, “everyone is still crammed together inside the planes” where he works.

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“I wish there wasn’t such a rush to bring us back,” said the systems installer. “No one is buying airplanes right now.”

A  mechanic at Boeing’s parts-fabrication plant in Auburn said she felt Boeing had made significant progress there in enhancing safety. The layout of her building was changed to create space for social distancing. The cafeteria was closed and employees asked to take lunch outside.

However, she still feels stressed by the fact that many coworkers are disregarding Boeing’s safety protocols. The masks are difficult to wear all day when working, and can fog up required safety goggles. Some aren’t using them properly and aren’t staying 6 feet apart.

“A lot of this falls on personal responsibility,” she said. “They are not taking it seriously and Boeing isn’t strictly enforcing it.”

That worries her because she has elderly and vulnerable family members in her home. She has talked with them and agreed on taking measures within the home to isolate herself from them.

“But if I hear any whisper of anyone (at work) testing positive for COVID-19, I’m shutting down and going home,” she said.

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Chun said that as of Tuesday, in line with with lower infection rates in the Puget Sound region, Boeing is tracking about 35 active COVID-19 cases among 70,000 employees in Washington state. About 100 local employees have recovered and are cleared to return to work.

“This is about continuous learning,” Chun said of the factory safeguards. “We are actively seeking feedback to improve safety.”

Still, given the fear of the virus and the difficulty of maintaining all the health protocols, much will have to go right to keep Boeing’s return to work on track.

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