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Maine Democratic leaders on Wednesday called for the federal government to extend deadlines for warships under construction at Bath Iron Works, saying it is no longer safe for the shipyard to maintain normal operations during the coronavirus outbreak.
House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, along with 15 other legislative Democrats, in a letter sent Wednesday asked Maine’s congressional delegation to “do all in your power” to convince President Donald Trump, the Defense Department and Homeland Security to extend those deadlines by “at least an additional six months, or by as long as a national emergency declaration is in place.”
Bath Iron Works has come under fire from leaders of the two largest unions at the shipyard after its parent company, General Dynamics, said earlier this week that it will allow workers to take up to 80 hours of time off during the coronavirus outbreak, but without pay.
In a Tuesday memo, General Dynamics said the U.S. Navy confirmed the Bath shipyard was considered “critical infrastructure” under White House guidance issued this week that defense contractors continue to operate normally in the interest of national security.
But Gideon, Jackson and the other lawmakers said in their letter that the Bath shipyard, and other private defense contractors, need “flexibility” to protect the health of its workers and the state at large.
“If there were an outbreak at BIW, or any shipyard, it could not only jeopardize the health of the individuals, but also the ability for that facility to continue operations. We understand that they are critical infrastructure, and maintaining that infrastructure requires the people who make it possible stay healthy,” the letter reads.
Maintaining a normal operation to meet those deadlines, they write, assumes a healthy workforce and low risk for spread of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
“It is no longer a safe or realistic expectation for BIW or any large employer. It will likely result in loss of life and will definitely result in lost productivity,” the letter reads.
Extending those contract deadlines would allow the shipyard to reduce its workforce and allow workers to apply for temporary unemployment benefits, the lawmakers write.
The shipyard employs about 8,000 workers from all 16 of Maine’s counties.
On Thursday morning, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, both Democrats, said they intend to send a formal request to the Trump administration to provide the Bath shipyard a reprieve from its deadlines.
“Bath Iron Works shipbuilders know the work they do is critical to American national security and military readiness,” the Democrats said in a statement. “However, with the arrival of the coronavirus in Maine and the resulting public health crisis unfolding before our eyes, our nation’s leaders need to confront reality: BIW can’t build the best warships in the world if its shipbuilders are sick or caring for sick family members. With Bath shipbuilders hailing from hundreds of towns in each of Maine’s sixteen counties, a coronavirus outbreak at BIW could have grave consequences for households and communities throughout the state.”
Requests for comment were left Thursday morning with the offices of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and a spokesman for the Bath shipyard.
So far, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are 42 confirmed and likely cases of the coronavirus in at least seven counties across the state. Nationally, the virus has sickened 7,038 people in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and caused 97 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.