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How Boeing Employees Feel As Some Return To Work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Boeing shut down its jet assembly lines last month as the coronavirus hit Seattle. Some Boeing employees had tested positive for the disease. One longtime inspector had died. This week, some of those assembly lines are coming back to life. Twenty-seven-thousand employees are returning to work in Washington state. Ray Goforth leads one of the unions that represents some of these workers, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

RAY GOFORTH: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Before the factory shut down, there were reports of worker protests as people were anxious about continuing to work during the pandemic. So what are you hearing from your members now? Are they eager or afraid about going back to work?

GOFORTH: Cautious; I mean, it's like - you know, like, all of us, people are figuring things out, you know, as it goes. The company has, you know, made a lot of efforts to make sure that the workplace is sterile, and they're going to be providing some personal protective equipment. But it's still making everyone nervous to suddenly have, you know, tens of thousands of people in these buildings again.

SHAPIRO: Sure. In spite of those steps that the company is taking, assembly lines were not built with social distancing in mind. I mean, how easy is it to adapt these tightly tuned assembly lines to keep workers at safe distances, not sharing surfaces and so on?

GOFORTH: Yeah, it's going to be a challenge. Airplane assembly lines don't necessarily look like a auto assembly line that everyone...

SHAPIRO: OK.

GOFORTH: ...Is familiar with. The airplanes are made much slower, but, you know, there are lots of tasks that have to be done - you know, stringing wire within fuselages and things, where it's going to be very difficult to maintain social distancing. And then you just have the routine things like catching the elevator.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

GOFORTH: How do you maintain social distance...

SHAPIRO: Are there measures in place for people who have underlying health conditions or protocols if a worker's family member or roommate tests positive for the disease?

GOFORTH: You know, people with underlying health conditions - we're working to have them work from home wherever they can. And if not, we're treating it as a, you know, disability accommodation. If people have been in contact with a known COVID-19 patient, then they are barred from coming to work. And it's treated like a health issue.

SHAPIRO: At the same time, the company has said not everybody returning to work is automatically going to be tested for the virus. Does that worry you?

GOFORTH: I think it would be ideal if everyone could be tested, not just for the active virus but to see if they'd had the virus previously. But the tests are still being rationed in Washington state, as they are across the country.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And temperature checks are going to be voluntary not mandatory. Would you prefer to see everybody have their temperature checked, as is happening in some other countries right now?

GOFORTH: You know, I don't know. There are, you know, some choke points where people coming into the factory - where if you could scan people, like, on a crowd, that would be helpful. But if they had to check everybody as they came in through the gate, I don't know how you could just physically accomplish that with 30,000 people.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

GOFORTH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I guess, at the end of the day, it seems like a good sign that the factory is reopening, at least in part. What is the likelihood that there will be another outbreak and it will have to close down again, do you think?

GOFORTH: Well, I certainly hope there won't be. But, you know, Washington state embarked upon social distancing quite early, so we were able to bend the curve here quickly. But I think we're all afraid that if those restrictions are removed too early, that it'll come bounding back.

SHAPIRO: Longer term, this pandemic has been devastating for the airline industry and might affect people's desire to travel for years. I mean, even as the company starts up again, are your members prepared for a long-term slowdown in the airline industry?

GOFORTH: Yes. The Boeing company's in the process of laying off at least 10% of its workforce, so they're starting with voluntary layoffs; you know, people who are a year or so from retiring anyway and asking if they'd like to go early. But everyone is bracing for steep cuts in the workforce because the customers - you know, the customer base just has evaporated.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Ray Goforth is executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. That's the union that represents Boeing's technicians, pilots and engineers.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

GOFORTH: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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