Assembly of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner at the factory in Everette, Washington. Boeing is reopening factories in three states where stay-at-home mandates remain in place. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Seattle: Boeing is reopening factories in three states where stay-at-home mandates remain in place, recent announcements from the company indicate, as executives attempt to stave off further economic damage while also protecting the health of employees.

The company closed its largest factories in early April, putting a halt to all final assembly of commercial aircraft. Now, after just a few short weeks of deep-cleaning, Boeing executives say it is safe to return to work in a limited capacity.

Boeing will reopen its military helicopter production facility outside Philadelphia on Monday, the company announced Friday. On April 13, it reopened factories in the Puget Sound region of Washington state, where it carries out final assembly of the 737 Max and 777 commercial jetliners, as well as the KC-46 and P-8 military aircraft. And the company announced Thursday that it will also reopen a smaller military aircraft repair facility in Heath, Ohio.

Necessity of reopening

In news releases and letters to employees, the company’s leadership emphasized the economic necessity of returning to work at a time of historic vulnerability for Boeing’s business.

And they said a series of safety measures should be enough to prevent another spike in cases. The company’s global workforce has already experienced at least 100 coronavirus infections and at least one death.

“This phased approach ensures we have a reliable supply base, our personal protective equipment is readily available and we have all of the necessary safety measures in place to resume essential work for our customers,” wrote Stan Deal, president and chief executive of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division.

Newly installed chief executive Dave Calhoun has said the company is “in uncharted waters,” and is attempting to rally employees for what promises to be a bumpy, uncertain recovery.

“The impact of this global virus will change our business for years to come,” Calhoun wrote in a letter to the company’s staff. “But we’re doing what it takes to emerge from it strong and competitive.”

In many ways Boeing is a microcosm of the broader business community across the United States. The company’s executives are expected to protect the physical health of workers in the middle of a pandemic while also ensuring the economic stability of the organization and its workers.

Conflicting guidelines

And the company must navigate conflicting guidelines passed down from states and the federal government. President Donald Trump on Friday revealed guidelines for reopening states, while leaving the decision up to governors. On Friday several state governors announced plans to gradually reopen their states, with Texas, Minnesota and Vermont announcing dates for easing restrictions. Trump has pressed for reopening states even in defiance of orders issued by governors, on Friday tweeting that Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia should be “liberated.”

Boeing plants will reopen in states that are yet to meaningfully loosen restrictions. The governors of Washington state and Pennsylvania have both established stay-at-home orders that extend at least through the end of April.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Wednesday press briefing that Washington residents should continue to social distance to prevent another surge in virus infections.

“If we do take off social distancing we are gong to see a rebounding of this virus, and more fatalities even than we are experiencing today,” Inslee said.

Boeing leadership believes that its safety practices will be sufficient to prevent further infection within its ranks. To lessen the risk for employees, the company plans to stagger shift start times so fewer people are coming and going at the same time. It has marked the floors in some factories to create physical distance between workstations.

In Washington, an early coronavirus hotspot, all employees will be required to wear face coverings. When physical distancing is not required, the company will require personal protective equipment. The company has promised to conduct contact tracing when employees test positive for the virus. There will be health checks at some facilities.

Boeing’s defense facilities are falling in line with a Defense Department directive issued in early April that defense contractors are considered a part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” and should continue normal work schedules as a result. Most of Boeing’s peers in the defense industry, including Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, have kept plants open despite the risk of infection.