The second-shift workers at the General Electric plant in Lynn were already on high alert when they reported to work Friday afternoon.
The machinists, hand-tool operators, and inspectors who build jet and helicopter engines for the US military were concerned that their shared workstations weren’t being sanitized between around-the-clock shifts while the highly contagious coronavirus ravages the country, according to their union. They knew of co-workers who had reported to work with COVID-19-like symptoms because they couldn’t get tested and didn’t have enough sick time to quarantine themselves. They worried about their 300-plus co-workers over the age of 60, who are considered higher-risk.
Then, shortly after they clocked in at 3 p.m., they learned that two members of a co-worker’s household had tested positive for COVID-19.
A union representative yanked the roughly 20-member crew outside, called in union higher-ups, and pleaded with the company to allow everybody to be sent home, with pay, for two weeks. When that was rejected, the union tried for five days of self-quarantining until the man’s test results came back, followed by temperature checks at the plant’s medical center before anyone was allowed back to work. Still, no dice.
The company’s solution: Clear the building for a two-hour deep-cleaning of workspaces and common areas that day, then back to work.
Many workers decided to take paid time off on the spot, according to the union. And some aren’t planning to come back until they know the outcome of their co-worker’s test.
The union representative, a machinist with a newborn at home, was already so worried about being exposed at the plant that he had been taking off his clothes in his garage as soon as he got home and showering before he went inside to see his wife and three children. Since Friday’s revelation about the positive tests in the home of one of his co-workers — a man he had been in close contact with — he has confined himself to the garage and an attached family room and has seen his month-old daughter only through video chat.
"The chances of this guy's test coming back negative is slim to none. That's what's killing me right now," said the machinist, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. "I pleaded with [the company], just make the humane decision and send us home."
GE did not go into further detail about the incident on Friday beyond the two-hour sanitizing of the building. The Boston company noted that it has a number of new protocols in place to protect workers against the virus. They include hiring 17 porters to distribute cleaning materials and disinfect common areas; doubling the budget for cleaning products; limiting meetings to no more than 10 people; screening visitors for signs of COVID-19; ending shifts 15 minutes early, both to clean workstations and to increase social distancing between shifts; and closing the gym and cafeteria.
The company said it is also meeting with union health and safety representatives daily, conducting regular plant walk-throughs, and giving groups separate entrances, bathrooms, and break times to increase social distancing.
Workers diagnosed with COVID-19 or medically quarantined will be given additional paid leave.
“GE Aviation’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees," a spokesman said in a statement, noting that the Lynn facility is considered essential by the Department of Homeland Security because it supplies “mission-critical equipment” to the military.
GE has put protective measures for employees in place in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the spokesman said, and is working with high-risk employees.
On Saturday night, the union sent a letter to GE and to its members stating that the company’s failure to properly clean the plant had created “an existing threat to the safety of employees” and that those who did not feel safe didn’t have to go to work. This doesn’t constitute a strike, the union said, citing the National Labor Relations Act’s protection for workers in “abnormally dangerous conditions for work.”
Tensions have been running high for weeks at the plant, which employs about 1,260 members of IUE-CWA Local 201, and there is little evidence the plant is any cleaner than it used to be, according to the union. Dust coats workbenches shared by three shifts, and mildew clings to urinal flushers, workers said. Purell stations mounted on walls run out as soon as they are filled; ditto for soap in the bathroom, they noted. Gloves, wipes, and disinfectant are in short supply. At the station where workers get tools, the man handing out equipment was coughing into his hands and rubbing his face, a worker said.
The extra cleaners aren’t disinfecting tool checkout areas, workers said, nor are they sanitizing shared work stations between shifts, despite the company’s assertions that it is. These are complicated machines with multiple surfaces where germs can live, they point out — handles, gauges, touch screens, and controllers with dozens of buttons — not to mention the measuring equipment, cutters, grinding wheels, and other tools shared by workers.
Social distancing is also all but impossible for many workers at the plant, whether they’re in the cab of a truck or sitting elbow to elbow as they test an engine. The protocol to end shifts 15 minutes early didn’t last, according to the union, noting that some workers weren’t getting paid for this time. GE said the practice is ongoing and pay is not being docked.
A number of workers have come in sick, the union said, including a man whose wife, a health care worker, was exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient. The man quarantined himself for a week but ran out of sick time — GE workers get only the state-mandated 40 hours a year of paid sick leave — and worked last week with a cough and red, glassy eyes.
“It’s like watching a car accident in slow motion,” said Adam Kaszynski, president of Local 201, which helped the man get more paid time off to recover at home.
The union is asking GE to bump sick time up by 14 days for workers who have been exposed or who have COVID-19 symptoms, even if they haven’t been tested. And cleaning supplies and sanitization efforts must be increased, it says.
"There's a lot of scared people in there right now," said Bobby Eldridge, a custodian at the plant. "They don't know what's going on. They see all management's working from home, and here they are."
The workers don’t object to the fact that they’re working while so many other businesses have been shut down, Kaszynski said. Building engines for jets and helicopters for the military is essential, he said, but to get those orders out, he said, workers need to be healthy.
Complete Cleaning Co., the contractor that cleans the plant, has been training and sending extra workers to the site — in some cases four times the number it normally does, said Garry Beaver, owner of the Lynn company.
“GE is very concerned about making sure their employees are protected,” said Beaver, who could not say if his employees were cleaning workstations between shifts. “They’ve done more than any other company that I’ve seen.”
On Monday, the president of the international CWA union and other union leaders called on GE to do more to protect its workers — as well as to discuss manufacturing hospital ventilators at its plants — and held protests at the Lynn plant and GE’s Boston headquarters.
A GE spokesman said that GE Healthcare has already doubled its ventilator production capacity and plans to double it again by June. On Monday, the company announced it was partnering with Ford Motor Co. to produce 50,000 ventilators in Michigan in the next 100 days and could produce 30,000 a month beyond that.
The Lynn aviation plant has the workforce and the machines to make ventilators as well as jet engines, according to the union. The GE spokesman did not address the possibility of producing ventilators in Lynn.