This week Maine’s congressional delegation wrote to the Pentagon leadership urging them to help protect shipyard employee health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter from Senators Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I) as well as Reps. Chellie Pingree (D) and Jared Golden (D) dated March 19, the lawmakers requested Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly to help mitigate cash flow and other financial burdens contractors and subcontractors may face, help accelerate or advance payments or new contract obligations to help stabilize the industrial base, clarify the planning and public guidance for a stable industrial base while ensuring the workforce’s health and safety.

The future Zumwalt-class destroyer Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG-1002) was launched at the General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works shipyard in Bath, Maine, on Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo: General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works)

Colins and King serve on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and Armed Services Committees, respectively, while Pingee serves on the House Appropriations Committee and Golden on the House Armed Services Committee. Maine is home to General Dynamics’ [GD] Bath Iron Works (BIW), which is currently building the Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers and finishing Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyers.

“We are deeply concerned about the stability of the defense industrial base as the whole nation combats the current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.  We are equally worried about the health and safety risks to the industrial bases’ primary asset – its skilled workforce – as defense companies struggle to support our nation’s military while also managing the unique challenge we face today,” the four wrote.

They noted shipyard employees have to deal with both health concerns and arranging care for children home from school closures.

The letter specifically asked the Defense Department to help mitigate cash flow and other burdens the contractors may face via providing clear guidance and relief from contract requirements impacted by COVID-19 and “we ask that you take any actions possible to accelerate or advance payments or new contract obligations in order to provide immediate stability to the industrial base.”

The legislators underscored if further funding or legal authorities are needed to help provides these assurances to industry “we stand ready to immediately assist the Department.”

They also asked the Pentagon to clarify its planning and public guidance to ensure a stable industrial base while ensuring the health of the defense industrial base workforce. They highlighted insufficiently mitigating the impact of COVID-19 now could cause deeper impacts to the workforce in future months or years if the pandemic continues for an extended period.

“An outbreak of COVID-19 at one of our nation’s shipyards or other large defense contractors could truly be devastating to our national defense.  We ask you to work with and support industry to take all necessary protective actions,” they wrote.

Separately, Pingree and Golden released a statement the same day urging DoD to extend the deadlines for ships built at BIW.

While BIW shipbuilders’ work is critical to national security and military readiness, “with the arrival of the coronavirus in Maine and the resulting public health crisis unfolding before our eyes, our nation’s leaders need to confront reality: BIW can’t build the best warships in the world if its shipbuilders are sick or caring for sick family members. With Bath shipbuilders hailing from hundreds of towns in each of Maine’s sixteen counties, a coronavirus outbreak at BIW could have grave consequences for households and communities throughout the state.”

Therefore, the representatives argued DoD should provide BIW with contractual relief specifically in the form of extended deadlines for delivery of contracted ships.

“Such a delay would allow the shipyard the freedom to design workforce policies that reflect the urgent public health crisis facing our state and the rest of the country. We will work with our colleagues in Congress and with the administration to encourage the Department of Defense to update its guidelines to match the gravity of the moment,” they continued.