Portsmouth shipyard to begin phased return of workforce

  • Tall cranes dominate the waterfront at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Friday, May, 3, 2019, in Kittery, Maine. Members of Maine and New Hampshire's congressional delegations have been working to prevent shipyard construction projects from being cut to fund President Donald Trump's wall at the southern border. Last month, the senators said they were encouraged by a new Defense Department memo that appears to maintain funding for the projects. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Published: 5/31/2020 5:03:21 PM

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard will begin the first phase of returning its on-base workforce to full strength Monday, Cmdr. Capt. Daniel Ettlich announced last week.

PNSY and its workforce of nearly 8,000 were deemed essential to the country’s defense by the Trump administration amid the coronavirus crisis, and have since been continuing operations.

At the onset of the outbreak, the shipyard worked to send a large majority of its workforce off-base, either 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, Ettlich said approximately 45% of the shipyard’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.

PNSY has not gone untouched by the coronavirus. On April 5, a civilian employee assigned to Submarine Maintenance Engineering, Planning and Procurement Activity on the shipyard died as a result of COVID-19 complications, the U.S. Navy announced. Union leaders at that time also publicized several other positive cases associated with the workforce.

“This phased reintroduction of our full workforce aligns with our priorities of protecting our people, maintaining mission readiness, and supporting our U.S. government partners in the fight against COVID-19,” Ettlich said.

Phase 1 includes “healthy employees” who have been working from home conducting non-essential remote work. This phase will not include those employees who are still experiencing child-care challenges; these employees will continue to work remotely, said Shipyard Public Affairs Officer Danna Eddy.

Eddy said the phased approach plan was developed “to allow for a methodical return of employees to the installation.”

A preliminary phased return was implemented in mid-May, when employees using liberal leave were no longer authorized use of leave.

Phase 2 will see healthy employees who use child-care services return to the installation, and an implementation date for that has not been determined, as it coincides with the availability of child-care services, Ettlich said.

Phase 3 will see healthy employees who are conducting mission essential work remotely return.

Phase 4 will have employees who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria as “at risk for severe illness” return.

“Implementation dates for phase 3 and phase 4 are unknown and will be identified following careful consideration of updated data associated with the re-opening of surrounding states and CDC recommendations,” Ettlich said. “Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is committed to minimizing the risk of spread of coronavirus, while maximizing the mission.”

In his message to the workforce this week, Ettlich said as segments of workers begin to return, “we must be cognizant of the fact that they have likely been off yard for months.”

“Despite having daily discussions and updates with supervisors, they are sure to have questions as well as possible concerns about the return to the shipyard,” he said. “We can help them by leading by example as well as sharing information on the changes and best practices we’ve put in place.”

Ettlich said newly returning employees “may need reminders” of new protocol implemented after their departure from base.

“Just as we depend on each other to execute our critical mission, so too do we depend on our fellow shipyarders to help minimize the risk of spread and win this battle against COVID-19,” Ettlich said. “Our collective efforts are making a difference. Let’s keep it up and help welcome our returning teammates back to a shipyard that stands ready to deliver on our critical national security mission and is strengthened daily by our resiliency and commitment to excellence.”

Asked what safety measures are in place to ensure a returning worker does not bring and then spread COVID-19 on the yard, Eddy said multiple virus mitigating measures have been implemented in accordance with CDC, OSHA and Secretary of Defense guidelines.

“Our defense in-depth measures consist of wearing cloth face masks, physical distancing, proper cough etiquette, frequent hand washing and cleaning of our work areas,” she said. “Additionally, plexiglass barriers are being installed in office spaces where social distancing is challenging. Shipyard leadership is reviewing all workspaces, right-sizing the workforce throughout the shipyard and across multiple shifts to maximize social distancing. Portable hand-washing stations were purchased and installed for ease of access for employees working on the waterfront.”

Eddy said employees are required to conduct self-screening prior to departing their residence each day to verify they are not exhibiting symptoms associated with coronavirus. This includes verifying no recent contact with any individual that has tested positive for coronavirus.

Supervisors are required to conduct an additional health screening of their employees once in the workplace. Those employees going shipboard are issued colored-wristbands that indicate this health screening has been completed, Eddy said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
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