Workers inside Boeing’s Everett factory and other plants in the region are growing increasingly restless and angry at the company as jet assembly work continues while many businesses outside Boeing are at a standstill and fear grows about coronavirus infections inside the plants.
A total of 14 Boeing employees in the Puget Sound region are now confirmed to have the virus, most of them in Everett. And even though that manufacturing complex covers 1,000 acres with as many as 200 separate buildings, including the largest by volume in the world, it isn’t big enough for some people on site to feel safe from the virus.
One employee on the 777 assembly line described how an ambulance arrived earlier this week and medical responders wearing the now-routine protective gear of hospital smocks, masks and goggles took away a sick worker. He said the people who worked nearby were left in position — contradicting Boeing’s own guidelines that call for anyone suspected to have been exposed to be sent home and quarantined.
He said a janitorial crew came around and wiped down the area around the aircraft where the sick employee had worked, including the mobile crawler that moves the partially built plane along in the moving assembly line.
“But they didn’t touch the inside of the plane where everyone is working,” he said. “It’s a perfect petri dish for the virus to spread.
“It’s a bad feeling to go to work every day. You are scared to touch surfaces,” the 777 employee said. “It’s almost to the point where I won’t go in. My health is more important than money right now.”
Another employee who works on assembly of the new 777X noted that workers commute to the Everett plant from all over the region — from Puyallup to the south, Arlington to the north, Gold Bar to the east and Whidbey Island to the west — and so “the exposures Boeing is sending people out with could shoot this thing far and wide.”
“It’s extremely unsettling,” said the 777X employee, who has been at Boeing more than a decade. “This is the most panicked I’ve ever seen the Machinist membership. None of us can get our minds off it.”
The coronavirus crisis prompted the big U.S. automakers to announce plant closures Wednesday. At Boeing, the crisis has more dimensions. Already bleeding cash from the yearlong grounding of the 737 MAX, it’s now struggling to cope with an unparalleled plunge in the global airline business.
In a statement, Boeing said that in its factories its following guidance from regulatory agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yet employees, who asked not to be identified to protect their jobs, described conditions at odds with the official guidance Boeing offered the workforce to help contain the spread of the virus: People working closely together or exiting together in large crowds. Dirty bathrooms out of hand sanitizer and paper towels. Co-workers of people suspected of infection staying in place. Tools and parts passed around from one worker to another. Cleaning of the workspace that seems at times merely cursory.
In response to questions about workplace conditions, Boeing said in a statement that “we know many of our teammates have questions and concerns about the coronavirus situation. It’s not unlike the rest of our community and we are doing our best to address them.”
“Our facilities team is taking extra precautions and cleaning to an enhanced standard at all locations,” Boeing said. “We are advising our teams to find ways to give people more physical space, spread out a little more at crew and stand-up meetings.”
On Wednesday, automakers Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler each agreed to a demand by the United Auto Workers union to shut down all their North American plants through March 30 to clean the facilities. Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson suspended production, temporarily laying off as many as 2,000 workers.
Many Boeing workers are hoping for a shutdown here. The only thing keeping many of them in place is the need for a paycheck.
Jon Holden, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751, said Boeing is falling short in protecting the safety of his members.
“I don’t believe they are following the guidelines in place,” he said. Still, the union “has not asked Boeing to shut down at this point.”
Instead, he’s encouraging members to invoke the “imminent danger” clause in the IAM contract to stop work if they feel their specific work area is unsafe.
What’s holding the union back here is uncertainty over whether or how long workers would continue to be paid in the event of a shutdown.
“If it was solidified that people would be paid, we’d be pushing for a shutdown,” Holden said.
Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), many of whose members can work remotely although some must work inside the factory, said his union is “not in a position to second-guess the public health authorities.
“But it’s reaching a point where the company should consider closing factories to keep the broader community safe,” he said, adding that determining whether people will still get paid or maintain health care would be a priority.
Older, vulnerable workers
A young woman who works fabricating parts at Boeing’s Auburn facility — which has had one confirmed case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus — described thousands of employees clocking out together at the end of a shift through a limited number of exits. “Six feet apart is not happening,” she said.
She said various people move throughout the facility, moving parts around. “We don’t know who may have been sick touching those parts,” she said.
“I’m younger, I’ll be OK. But I work with older people,” she said. “I’m concerned about them. Take a look inside Boeing’s facilities. There are a lot of people over 60 with underlying health complaints. Boeing should be protecting them. It just seems bananas.”
Boeing has told employees that, with management approval, anyone worried about the virus can stay home, using up sick leave or vacation time or going without pay.
“It doesn’t feel like a choice,” the woman said. “I rely on the Boeing income.”
Still, she feels that to be a good citizen, she shouldn’t be at work. “We want to do what’s right and follow CDC guidelines to try to flatten that infection curve,” she said. “It’s a race against time.”
Another woman, half of a Boeing couple, said she understood that “with this current outbreak things have been incredibly strenuous” for Boeing.
But she said, “[I’m] concerned for my health and the health of my family due to Boeing’s lack of assistance.”
“My concern is that if this continues Boeing is going to have a very large outbreak that this state will have a hard time containing,” she added.
The Machinist working on the new 777X in Everett said he has a co-worker who is a diabetic with congestive heart failure, putting him in a higher-risk category. Yet, “he can’t afford not to work,” he said.
Unlike other parts of the factory, he said, the 777X assembly line is “ridiculously slow” right now, and his crew has spent lots of time sweeping and cleaning rather than production work.
“It’s ironic we’re still at work, sitting around sweeping,” the 777X worker said. “It’s a scary risk.”
But he sees even more risk elsewhere on site. His friend who works in a separate building — the Electrical Systems Responsibility Center — just received a notice from management, reviewed by The Seattle Times, telling him he may have been exposed to someone suspected of being infected and sending him home on quarantine.
That building is densely packed with as many as 1,000 workers who stand side-by-side in close quarters assembling wire bundles for the airplanes. “If the virus gets around that building, transmission will be wild,” the 777X employee said.
The employee on the 777 assembly line said Boeing “is not going to be able to keep this up much longer without serious repercussions.”
“I know Boeing is in a tight spot,” he said. “But if the workforce gets sick, what kind of future will that bring?”
He said that in his work area many of the crew are absent, either because they are sick, quarantined or simply scared to come in.
“Every day there are fewer people,” and productivity is low, the 777 employee said.
“It seems Boeing needs some percentage of people sick before they’ll pull the plug,” he added. “That’s reckless.”
Another Everett employee said he carpools to work with his dad, who has more than 40 years at Boeing, is over 60 and has diabetes.
“He cannot afford to leave without pay,” the younger man said. “But he flat-out told us today, if he gets sick and dies at Boeing, go after them.”