While Boeing workers earn full pay during the company’s two-week production shutdown, the 1,500 Washington state employees of French industrial giant Safran Group, who are also shut down for two weeks, will either have to apply for unemployment benefits or use their vacation time.

And though subsidiary Safran Cabin offered its mostly low-wage production workers a last-minute Paid Time Off (PTO) alternative, this came with a peculiar condition: It required employees to sign a waiver allowing the company to claw back wages if the worker is laid off or leaves before accruing all the PTO used now.

“It shows how cheap they really are,” said one worker at Safran’s plant in Marysville, which makes aircraft interiors and some structural parts.

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Employment lawyer Jason Rittereiser of the Seattle law firm HKM said the waiver implies the company could potentially force employees, even a year from now, to pay back some of the wages provided during the shutdown.

“That’s a protection that seems greedy at best and potentially against the law,” he said.

Another red flag, he said, is that Safran Cabin gave workers less than a day’s notice Wednesday to either sign up for the extra PTO or go on unemployment.

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Some employees who don’t work Wednesdays learned of the shutdown from home with no way to sign the waiver.

“Sending last-minute notices compelling employees to waive their potential rights seems suspect,” said Rittereiser.

The Marysville worker, who asked not to be identified to protect his job, said, “They basically want us on unemployment.”

Low pay

Safran is a major multinational corporation best known for making jet engines in the CFM International joint venture with GE. Employing 95,000 people worldwide, last year it made a profit of $2.9 billion.

Safran Cabin is a subsidiary with manufacturing facilities in Bellingham, Marysville and Newport. acquired in 2017 when Safran bought another French company, Zodiac.

Safran Cabin makes airplane passenger cabin interiors, including seats, stow bins, sidewalls, lavatories and galleys, as well as some carbon composite structural parts including fuselage frames for Boeing’s 787 and thrust reversers for the Airbus A320.

Unlike manufacturing work at Boeing, which Safran Cabin supplies, this assembly work provides mostly unskilled, entry-level jobs, with low pay. As a result, employee turnover is typically high.

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“They go through people really fast,” said the Marysville worker.

Wednesday’s notice to employees announcing the two-week shutdown, starting at midnight that night, said the closure was necessary due to the Boeing shutdown announced Monday.

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The notice informed employees they could use Paid Time Off (PTO) and could even claim an extra 80 hours of “negative PTO,” which would cover the full two-week suspension even if they had not yet accrued any PTO.

But to use PTO they had to apply that day and sign an agreement stating “Should I be released from the company for any reason, I authorize Safran Cabin to deduct any owed PTO (negative balance) from my final wages.”

To Rittereiser, this smacks of pettiness and exerting unnecessary leverage over the vulnerable.

He said offering the PTO option makes clear Safran has the resources to continue to pay its employees if it so chose.

Shouldering risk in a crisis

“There’s some responsibility, especially on large multinational corporations, that they bear the risk in these situations, not their employees,” said Rittereiser. “Especially not minimum-wage manufacturing workers.”

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While low-wage workers often live paycheck to paycheck, he said, a big company is in a much better position to take on risk in an emergency like the current economic meltdown because “it’s likely they will get some form of government assistance or relief down the road, if not immediately.”

Managers at Safran Marysville declined to answer questions. Safran’s communications director, Wampie Kegel, who is based in Holland, said via email that although Safran Cabin “will not be providing continuous pay during these two weeks, we are providing continuation of benefits.”

However, company filings with the state indicate some of its employees might not have full benefits.

Because Safran takes advantage of the state’s aerospace tax breaks — according to the most recent filing,  in 2018 the three Safran Cabin plants saved a total of $676,000 in taxes — it must file wage and benefit information annually.

The latest detailed wage and benefit information available is for 2017. That year, at the Bellingham plant for example, a fifth of the production workers earned less than $15 per hour and 57% of them less than $20 per hour. Only 65% of eligible employees there were enrolled in the company medical plan.