Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] has stayed open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with officials arguing they are taking precautions as its first two employees are confirmed to have the virus.

A corporate spokeswoman told Defense Daily in an email last week the company is taking several actions to aid the health and safety of employees but reported no contract impacts to date.

Huntington Ingalls Industries landed the island on to the flight deck of the future aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) during a ceremony at the company’s Newport News Shipbuilding division on May 29, 2019. (Photo: HII)
Huntington Ingalls Industries landed the island on to the flight deck of the future aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) during a ceremony at the company’s Newport News Shipbuilding division on May 29, 2019. (Photo: HII)

“We are having multiple meetings 24/7 with leadership and diligently monitoring the ever-changing situation, as well as following CDC’s guidelines,” spokeswoman Beci Brenton said.

“The health and safety of our employees is our primary focus right now.  It is premature to speculate on the impact of COVID-19 on our contracts. We are having ongoing discussions with our customers and will continue that dialogue in preparing contingencies and future plans,” she added.

HII builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines at the Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) yard in Virginia and various surface combatants and amphibious assault ships at its Ingalls Shipbuilding yard in Pascagoula, Miss.

HII’s website noted it is conducting additional cleaning at its facilities, suspending all travel and large gatherings. It said these are just first steps and “we do not know how long we will be operating under these new circumstances, but we are planning as if it will last several months. This means that decisions made today may change over time. However, HII’s mission remains critical to support our customers and national security.”

On March 20, Ingalls Shipbuilding President Brian Cuccias noted he received a letter from Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts emphasizing employee health and safety but noting the company performs mission-essential functions and as part of the defense industrial base they are “essential critical infrastructure” to remain open.

This matches guidance from Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord last week that told contractors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authority guidance to protect worker health and safety, but that the defense industrial base is critical to national security and will keep working (Defense Daily, March 20).

Then on March 22, the company confirmed its first employee at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement to employees, Cuccias said the employee is subject to isolation for 14 days. In the last two weeks the employee worked on LPD-29.

On Monday, Cuccias said the employee presented himself for onsite screening on March 20 and was sent home based on symptoms. Since then, the employee went to a hospital drive-thru test center and notified the company once he learned he tested positive. The company has since conducted deep cleaning of his primary work spaces.

Cuccias noted all employees who had close contact with the confirmed case have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and all work spaces on LPD-29 relevant to the person’s assignments have been cleaned.

Cuccias praised the employee for reporting his symptoms and status and said the company is checking on him regularly.

Aerial view of HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss. taken in June 2017. (Photo: HII)
Aerial view of HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss. taken in June 2017. (Photo: HII)

Also on Monday, NNS notified employees a shipbuilder at that facility tested positive as well. The company said on Monday the employee reported to NNS they received a positive result over the weekend.

While NNS cannot release the employee’s name for privacy reasons, the company noted the employee works on the second floor of Building 600 and was not on company property since March 16.

NNS President Jennifer Boykin in a statement underscored it has been actively cleaning the whole shipyard.

NNS is now particularly “increasing the frequency of sanitizing high-touch points throughout Building 600 with additional emphasis on wiping down bathrooms, railings, vending machines and elevators in immediate proximity to the employee’s workspace. The increased frequency will continue for a minimum of seven days. We will also ensure additional cleaning supplies are available in the building.”

The company is offering some flexibility to employees who are or may have contracted COVID-19, differing by branch. Generally, HII is temporarily suspending the waiting period so new employees have immediate access to medical coverage, is instituting liberal leave, and allowing some employees not restricted by client contracts to work from home.

Liberal Leave allows employees to use unpaid time off without risking their job.

Through mid-April, most employees, if directed to quarantine, will also be eligible for up to five days/40 hours of COVID-19 Leave to bridge the possible gap between feeling ill and trying to qualify for short-term disability without using paid time off.

Ingalls Shipbuilding noted it is waiving a seven-day waiting period to apply for short-term disability or loss of time benefits and the company will pay the difference between loss of time benefits and regular wages for union-represented employees during this period.

Ingalls noted the maximum enhanced pay from COVID-19 absence pay and differential pay will be no more than 10 work days.

HII Technical Solutions is going further and paying employees for up to 80 hours if directed to quarantine and are unable to work from home due the contract specifics.