KITTERY, Maine – U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen led the New Hampshire and Maine congressional delegations in a letter to the Navy secretary Tuesday regarding the health and safety of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers as the base returns to full strength.
Shaheen, D-N.H., U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, and Democratic Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden of Maine, inquired to Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite about what steps and protocols are in place to safeguard the shipyard workforce from COVID-19.
PNSY created a four-phase approach to return its workforce to Seavey Island. At the onset of the outbreak, the shipyard worked to send a large majority of its workforce off-base, through remote work opportunities, online training and professional development, or administrative leave for high-risk employees and those living with or caring for immuno-compromised individuals.
In April, shipyard Cmdr. Capt. Daniel Ettlich said approximately 45% of PNSY’s workforce was reporting to the base each day, with 31% working remotely. It was part of a plan to “right-size” the island, he said, in accordance with necessary social distancing requirements and protocols.
The workforce’s four phases of return were: Phase 1 included “healthy employees” who had been working from home conducting non-essential remote work, phase 2 saw healthy employees who use child-care services return, phase 3 saw healthy employees who were conducting mission essential work remotely return, and phase 4 recently saw employees who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria as “at risk for severe illness” return.
“We understand that employees with higher risk of severe illness began returning to the shipyard on June 29,” the delegations wrote. “As the transition to full strength begins, we would appreciate a response to the following questions so that we may better understand the processes in place to ensure the safety of the workforce.”
The delegation included a series of questions regarding metrics used by the Navy, social distance practices that will remain in effect, plans for a potential “second wave” and other areas of concern to ensure the well-being of all workers. The delegation also asked for an update on how many COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at the shipyard since June 1. In April, a civilian employee assigned to Submarine Maintenance, Engineering Planning and Procurement Activity at PNSY died as a result of COVID-19 complications.
“We recognize the important work of our shipyard employees in maintaining the readiness of our fast attack submarine fleet, and we appreciate the communication we have received from shipyard leadership,” they wrote. “However, we urge the Navy to continue to strike the right balance between maximizing the productivity of the workforce while minimizing the risk associated with the COVID-19 health emergency, especially for those at highest risk.”