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Lynn’s GE workers voice safety concerns, suggest making ventilators

By Gayla Cawley | April 1, 2020

LYNN — Workers at Lynn’s GE Aviation plant held protests on Monday and Tuesday, citing the company’s failure to address their health and safety concerns at the factory amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The demonstrations came days after an employee was sent home from work after reporting he was exposed to the coronavirus through a family member, and a week after the company announced it was laying off 10 percent of its aviation workforce.  

Rather than carrying out mass layoffs, Lynn’s General Electric employees are saying that if the company adequately cleaned up the plant, they could begin manufacturing “much-needed” ventilator equipment for hospitals around the country, while still producing the defense products ordered from the plant by the U.S. military. 

Adam Kaszynski, president of IUE Local 201, which represents 1,263 employees at the city’s River Works plant, said Lynn’s factory has the facilities and skills to assist in ventilator production and there are unemployed workers who could help build the equipment.

“We consider our work manufacturing resources for the United States military to be an essential role,” said Kaszynski in a statement. “However, the supply chain and the lives of workers are being jeopardized because we do not have the necessary supplies to keep our factory safe. 

“Folks want to keep working, but we need some basic resources from GE to keep workers and the broader public safe,” he said, noting that he felt local plant management was turning a “blind eye” to the issue. 

According to the union, inconsistent resources in the plant’s “high touch environment” have included sanitizer, paper towels, cleaning spray and spray bottles, which is coupled with their claims that machines, tools and work surfaces are not properly sanitized between shifts. 

In addition, some workers have been coming to work sick amid the coronavirus outbreak, the union claims, because they don’t have adequate sick time. 

Last Friday, Local 201 posted on Facebook that an employee had reported to work after he was exposed to the virus at home and had potentially come into contact with other members of the workforce. In response to the reported exposure, a union representative evacuated the building and membership met with the company. 

However, the union claims that the company did not take adequate steps to sanitize the majority of the building where the exposure occurred, which led to many workers choosing to take a sick day. 

The union has been pushing for an additional two weeks of paid time off since last month, but Kaszynski said the company has not been receptive. 

“Temporarily implementing an increase in sick time will give folks the opportunity to recover from any symptoms or exposure that may be related to COVID-19, so that we can maintain our supply chain and the lives of workers,” said Kaszynski. 

However, GE spokesman Richard Gorham said there’s been a number of steps taken to increase safety at the plant. 

“Safety of our employees is our first concern, and we have taken proactive measures to ensure ample supplies are readily available,” said Gorham in a statement. “We have already spent double our annual cleaning budget at the plant, and we’ll continue to invest as needed to ensure we can continue to operate safely.” 

Gorham said equipment, work areas and time clocks are being cleaned between shifts on a daily basis and there’s been steps taken, such as providing separate entrances, alternate pathways and separate clock-in areas to avoid large congregations of employees. 

Other precautions taken at the Lynn plant have included: 

Increased cleaning and disinfecting of common areas
Closed the Lynn Site Fitness Center
Closed the Lynn Site cafeteria
No in-person meetings or gatherings greater than 10 people per CDC guidelines
Frequent restocking of soap in restrooms
Screening of all visitors for signs of COVID-19
Ending of shift 15 minutes early to clean workstations and to increase social distancing between shifts

Although the union said the plant is equipped for ventilator production, Gorham said GE Aviation in Lynn is focused on manufacturing military engines and equipment to meet its customer commitments. 

However, he cited the company’s partnership with Ford Motors that was announced Monday, which came with a joint commitment to start producing ventilators on April 20. The two companies estimated they could produce 50,000 ventilators by July, according to the Boston Globe. 

Before that partnership, Gorham said the company had been “working around the clock to increase production of much-needed medical equipment.” For instance, he said GE Healthcare has doubled its ventilator capacity, and plans to double its output again by June.

“Lynn is primarily a DoD facility being counted on to manufacture military engines and spare parts to support our servicemen/women even during this global pandemic,” said Gorham. “As we pursue additional opportunities to ramp up production, we are prioritizing efforts that allow us to meet need fastest, as compared to time intensive projects that could involve reopening or re-tooling facilities with medical equipment-grade standards.”