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Striking shipbuilders are losing health coverage in pandemic

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Striking shipbuilders are losing health coverage in pandemic

Bets are growing on strike against shipbuilder Bath Iron Works as health insurance provided by the company is ending in the middle of a global pandemic

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DAVID SHARP Associated Press

July 1, 2020 at 12:38 pm

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PORTLAND, Maine – Bets are mounting on a strike against shipbuilder Bath Iron Works during a global pandemic as the health insurance provided by the company is running out for 4,300 shipbuilders who have quit their jobs.

Striking workers at Machinists Union Local S6 will be responsible for their own insurance starting on Wednesday, just days after three workers joining together have tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least one of the three workers who tested positive was on the picket line in Bath, a union spokesman said.

Striking workers said on Tuesday that they are determined to continue the strike, as tens of thousands of people remain unemployed in Maine, and several states report growing cases of COVID-19.

Workers are on strike for subcontracting, work rules and seniority, while wages and benefits are a secondary concern. The company’s final offer required a three-year contract with 3% salary increases each year.

“The choice is very simple. I had to attack. There was no other option, ”said Brad Farrell, who is married and has four children, and fears that changes in subcontracting and seniority may force him to quit his job at the can store.

The workers overwhelmingly rejected the company’s proposed final contract and went on strike on June 22. There have been no conversations since. The company had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

The last strike, in 2000, lasted 55 days.

Workers are preparing for the long haul, looking for other jobs and health care options. Maintaining health insurance through the so-called COBRA program can cost up to a few thousand dollars a month. Others said they would simply be left without health insurance.

Kelley Ammons, a 58-year-old marine electrician, opted to forgo insurance purchases and filed a blood pressure prescription on Tuesday, before the company’s insurance expired.

“I hope it will take me until the team can return to the negotiating table and reach an agreement,” said Ammons.

Gordon Campbell, a 55-year-old sandblaster, has money set aside and is paying more for his wife’s insurance. “I just hope the two sides will come together and try to resolve this,” he said.

Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, based in Virginia, provided a good insurance plan for workers because the union negotiated and that underscores the need to fight for a good contract, union spokesman Tim Suitter said.

The strike has great implications not only for the shipbuilder, but also for the Navy, which wants warships to be delivered as quickly as possible in a time of increasing competition from Russia and China.

Bath Iron Works is one of the five largest naval shipbuilders in the Navy and one of only two destroyers, the workhorse of the fleet, capable of simultaneously combating aircraft, missiles, warships and submarines. Some of them have defense capabilities against ballistic missiles.

The shipyard is already about six months late, partly because of the pandemic, and will need subcontractors to help get back on schedule, said Dirk Lesko, president of Bath Iron Works.

The union characterized some of the shipyard’s proposals as an attempt to break it, while the company claims it needs to simplify operations to lower prices and remain competitive.

The company hired 1,800 workers last year and is hiring another 1,000 this year, so there is no effort to shrink the workforce, the company said. The shipyard employs about 6,800 workers.

The pandemic served as a backdrop for the tension between the union and the company. In all, half a dozen workers tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said. Three recovered and went back to work; the last three are receiving medical care, officials said.

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This story has been corrected to show that the name of one of the shipbuilders is Kelley Ammons, not Kelley Hammond.

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