Weapons makers prepare for delays as vaccine protests flare up

There are already signs that large programs may feel the loss of skilled workers. Raytheon’s CEO predicted this week that he could lose “thousands” of workers who would rather leave than get the vaccine.

“Even a few welders or engineers who quit their jobs on a top-secret program could devastate our national security,” said William Greenwalt, former assistant secretary of state for industrial policy in the George W. Bush administration. “Often times we’re just one person deep in the industrial base and it can take a decade or more to train someone.”

At the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, owned by General Dynamics, up to 1,000 workers, or 30 percent of the workforce, could quit instead of getting the shot, Machinists Union Local S6 officials estimated. Six Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the backbone of the Navy’s surface fleet, are in various stages of construction at the shipyard.

Some Bell employees competing for the Army’s next generation helicopter have already protested against the mandates in front of the company headquarters in Amarillo. There were also demonstrations at General Dynamics’ factory in Lima, Ohio, which builds Abrams tanks, and at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., Owned by the country’s largest shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries. The company builds and maintains the country’s aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, and manufactures the Navy’s nuclear submarines and destroyers.

The 44,000-employee company operates two major shipyards at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia and Pascagoula.

In a blunt Video statement to your workforce On Monday, Newport News Shipbuilding President Jennifer Boykin warned, “I don’t want you to hope that we reverse this policy or extend the deadlines, we just can’t,” added, “If you have made the decision to not to do this? Being vaccinated and choosing a new path that better fits your values ​​and beliefs is my only request that you read up on what this means for you and your family. “

Some defense firm Anti-Vax workers have started organizing. Over 200 employees at Bell and more than 130 at Lockheed Martin, work with an attorney based in Arlington, Texas to have their vaccination waiver requests fulfilled. The attorney representing them, Warren Norred, said Bell did not respond to his letter while Lockheed acknowledged the request.

Norred told POLITICO that his argument to the companies was that an employee who signed a letter asking for an exemption from mandate had already risked his or her job. “If I put my name on a letter of exemption, I have already shown good faith,” he said with a reasoned objection. “There are compelling reasons for reasonable people not to want to take this vaccine.”

Lockheed Martin responded to the complaint that the company is “taking the necessary steps to ensure a smooth implementation, including providing a system for employees to upload their vaccination records, get vaccinated, and access a standard placement process for those due to their health cannot be vaccinated ”. Status or sincere religious belief prevents this. “

Bell replied that it could “not provide an opinion on litigation”.

Norred said he believes the companies want to find a solution. “It’s all political and I understand that the big companies just want to sell their stuff, and they want to sell stuff by doing what the boss wants and the boss here is Biden.”

The Covid vaccine and subsequent booster vaccinations are FDA cleared and defense companies must adhere to federal guidelines if they want to do business with the government. These vaccines went through all the required phases of clinical trials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A senior executive at Collins Aerospace Mission Systems, unspecified, said the waivers were written to “soft-fire” certain capabilities. For example, an employee who has to do most of their work in a classified environment cannot enter the facility even if they are granted an exemption.

“We have proven that if you lose or misplace just a handful of the wrong people, things can be made for 10 years,” said the Collins executive. “For the strategic deterrent, for the big red button, the ability to keep things going, you can’t stop for a month, let alone years.”

However, Covid-related absences have and could continue to affect the workforce, and companies are trying to limit those absences and losses by enforcing the mandate.

To make matters worse, some in the industry don’t know what administration expects of them.

A manager, who chose to remain anonymous, said his Pentagon colleagues “haven’t really explained what they’re asking us to do, so we’ll do what we think is best while following the order.”

Contractors are huddling with their lawyers to determine how and where to enforce the rule, even though the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator suggested this week that these rules could potentially be a little muddier than originally thought.

Federal contractors should “follow their standard HR processes and that for each of the likely relatively small percent of non-compliant employees that they go through education, counseling, lodging and then enforcement,” White House Covid Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday. “We create flexibility within the system,” he added. “There is no cliff here.”

This flexibility makes contractors feel like they are on their own.

The Pentagon “hasn’t given much guidance on when an exemption might or should be granted,” said a senior defense official, who asked to speak anonymously in order to speak freely. “And I think we are very much relying on the industry to make its own judgment about granting exceptions. To be honest, it is not the easiest thing to understand. “

The Pentagon referred the comment to the Office of Management and Budget. An official there confirmed POLITICO’s request but made no comment either.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “We are in close contact with our defense industry colleagues on this matter. We wholeheartedly support the president’s mandate that the defense companies be vaccinated so that they can continue to do the work they need to do. “

Some defense companies are proactively addressing the expected labor shortage. Northrop Grumman is hiring more employees ahead of the Dec. 8 deadline, CEO Kathy Warden told investors Thursday.

“The government should have thought a little more about implementation,” said Greenwalt, the former Pentagon official. “And took into account the possible consequences of a rigid mandate only for the government and designed a more flexible approach.”

Greg Hayes, CEO of Raytheon Technologies, was the first of the top five defense ministers to comment on Biden’s vaccine mandate, describing the policy as strengthening the company’s prospects in the fourth quarter of 2021. However, he also said he expects to lose “thousands” of employees this week due to the order.

The supply chain problem is twofold, Hayes said during a conference call on third quarter results. “People are part of it, but I tell you, there are raw materials too,” he said.

During this week’s conference call, CEOs across the defense industry warned that the supply chain disruptions that are shaking up markets would likely affect their businesses, an unwelcome one-two-shot if these companies were also to lose skilled workers.

On Capitol Hill, dozens of GOP lawmakers in the past few weeks have asked the Biden administration to extend the deadline or relax the rules of the executive order, even as the White House signals it will be more flexible on enforcement than that original arrangement proposed.

Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, the senior Armed Services Republican, fired a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week asking him to end the Pentagon mandate while Mike Rogers, a member of the House Armed Services, Alabama , spearheaded a group of House Representatives in a letter to Biden and Austin, called for a relaxation of the mandate for defense contractors, arguing that it would take a long time to recover from the loss of skilled labor.

Despite protests outside factories and shipyards and letters from Congressmen, the effects of the December 8 deadline will not be known until after the deadline.

“I think the challenge is that by December 8, it will be difficult for any company to know the full extent of the potential impact on their employees,” said the defense official. “That is why we are negotiating the changes to the contract without knowing how this company or this contract could be implemented in full.”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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