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Electric Boat COVID-19 response was too slow and inadequate

Electric Boat waited far too long to institute aggressive measures to limit the threat of exposure to COVID-19 among its shipyard workers in Groton and office personnel at both its facilities there and in New London. And by not doing more, the company by extension created greater risk for the families of these workers and for the region.

The philosophy when EB management confronted the pandemic was to get as much work done with as minimal disruption as possible. Given the threat posed by a new virus, for which no one had immunity and for which there was no vaccine, the prevention protocols initiated were woefully lacking — stay at home if you’re sick, wash hands frequently, begin moving office personnel to home operations where possible, and intense facility cleaning.

The problem is that infected people don’t all become immediately sick, but they can still spread the virus. Washing hands is important but it does not substitute for safe spacing. According to EB personnel, while substantial numbers of people are now working from home, the rollout was slow and the promised intense cleaning never materialized. A company spokesperson said high-traffic areas are being kept cleaner.

In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said EB achieved its goal of keeping much of its workforce in operation as the pandemic hit, performing better than other defense contractors in that regard.

“EB’s employees have shown remarkable loyalty and commitment to showing up for work,” he said.

But the outcome was predictable, with COVID-19 cases spreading among the workforce, and with workers feeling they are heading into a “Petri dish” of potential viral infection each day. Perhaps the seriousness of the situation hit home with management when last Friday a test confirmed EB President Kevin Graney had the virus.

On Wednesday, Graney announced the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached 17. Given the lag time between exposure, getting sick and being tested, that number can be expected to rise no matter what steps EB takes moving forward.

In conversations with The Day, EB employees have expressed their fears of going into work each day, the stress of knowing they could be carrying the virus home, and anger over the perception that production was prioritized over people.

While on March 23 EB went to a second shift at its New London offices to ease crowding, only now is EB putting in place alternate four-days-on, four-days-off shipyard shifts to reduce worker density. The company expects to implement the new schedules over the Easter weekend. It is telling employees it is aggressively working to provide masks to a large number of personnel. But why not sooner?

And only recently, according to our discussion with Courtney, have there been high level discussions between the Navy, EB and other defense contractors to waive, or at least mitigate, the financial penalties shipyards face for failing to meet production deadlines.

All of this should have happened weeks sooner. While a full shutdown would have been an extreme step and a difficult one given the complexities of submarine construction, the alternative approach should not have been full speed ahead. EB should instead have planned on a minimal production schedule, allowing as much safe spacing as possible, but maintaining enough progress to allow for a quick ramping up of work as the viral threat subsided.

That approach would have required assurances weeks ago from the Pentagon that EB would not be penalized for slowing production to protect workers. The congressman, who chairs the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee and has effectively fought for increased submarine construction, could have been instrumental in pressing EB and the Pentagon to adjust their priorities to place worker protection first. Instead, he seems late to the dance.

Pressed on why the adjusted work schedules did not happen sooner, the congressman responded, “I can’t answer that question … but that’s a good question.”

We’re glad the congressman agrees. It is a question his subcommittee should get answered when the crisis slackens, so that EB and other shipyards, working with the Pentagon, have better game plans for future pandemics when they come, because they will come.

Editor's note: This editorial was updated to include additional information provided by Electric Boat.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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