WASHINGTON — Connecticut’s robust defense industry is protected from some of the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis because it is essential to the national security of the nation.
But that doesn’t mean defense contractors are not feeling pain, and some — especially those with many commercial clients, like Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney — could be forced to lay off or furlough workers if COVID-19 has a severe economic impact on those non-military clients or their supply chain is badly disrupted.
Defense contractors worry that sending employees home for their safety could delay production and put them in breach of contract with the Pentagon. Problems with suppliers also threaten the delivery of military hardware on time.
On Friday, the Defense Department declared that defense contractors are “critical infrastructure” to national security, a designation that comes with a requirement to maintain a consistent, normal work schedule despite the outbreak of coronavirus.
But the Pentagon has given the state’s defense contractors little guidance on how to operate during the crisis. Instead, the Defense Department has delegated decision-making authority to individual contracting officers, so a patchwork system is in place.
Some companies, including Lockheed Martin, which owns Sikorsky, have urged all employees who can work from home to do so. Shipbuilders such as General Dynamics’s Electric Boat have allowed workers to take unpaid leave to care for children now that schools are closed.
East Hartford jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney, which has about 10,000 workers in Connecticut, is working on a system that will allow its employees to work from home.
But when defense work has to be done in secure facilities, or a production line, the option to work from home seems unrealistic.
James Hart, president of the AFL-CIO’s Metal Trade division, which represents workerS at Electric Boat, said the company’s office staff and engineers are able to work at home. “But blue collar workers, they’re not able to telework,” he said.
One way or another, most of the manufacturing workforce is still reporting to work, although some in staggered shifts that reduce the numbers of people working at a plant at one time.
And, besides allowing employees – especially those who think they’ve had exposure to COVID-19 — to work at home, Lockheed Martin said it has “limited international and domestic travel, and visitors to our locations unless necessary for business.”
Lockheed Martin also said “we are actively engaged with our customers on mission priorities, and we are working to mitigate disruptions in the supply chain where possible.”
A Sikorsky source said there have been no layoffs or furloughs at its Connecticut facility. And she said there are no current problems with the supply chain, but also said that there could be changes in that situation.
Pratt & Whitney’s customers include both the Pentagon and the world’s major airlines, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus’ halt to most airplane travel.
This week, Aerospace Industries Association President Eric Fanning called for Congress to give companies like Pratt & Whitney and its suppliers aid in a $1 trillion coronavirus response bill that’s under negotiation.
“Our people, products, and common supply chain help to power our economy and to provide our warfighters—many of whom are currently deployed—the world-class capabilities and tools they need to defend our nation’s security,” he said.
But Fanning said “right now, extraordinary challenges to our workforce and our heavily integrated supply chain are reverberating across America’s industrial base, which in turn, is having a major and measurable impact on our economy.”
Liz Power, spokeswoman at Electric Boat, said the company has not furloughed any workers, nor has any company employee tested positive for coronavirus.
“We are allowing our supervision to be as flexible as possible with their teams — allowing employees to work at home if feasible, flex start and stop times and alter schedules and make other arrangements to help our employees manage unprecedented circumstances,” she said.
Hart said the Metal Trades union is working with the company on safety issues. “We have to keep working, but we have to be cognizant of science,” he said.
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the nature of defense manufacturing work makes it easy for many workers to practice “social distancing” on the job, which means keeping at least six feet away from everybody else. “People are naturally spaced out,” he said. “If you are a welder, other people aren’t standing three feet away.”
But there are childcare issues now that schools are closed. And while being on the job may not pose any problems, defense companies should lock up break rooms to address “the problem of social gathering,” Harrison said.
While the Pentagon has not issued a general directive to the defense industry, its top acquisitions official, Ellen Lord, has instituted a daily phone call with the Aerospace Industries Association, National Defense Industrial Association, Professional Services Council, National Association of Manufacturers, and Chamber of Commerce to make sure there are no major problems in the defense industry that would impact the nation’s war-making capabilities.