The coronavirus has hit many large manufacturing facilities around the world, and Huntington Ingalls’ U.S. shipyards are no exception. As of April 12, the military shipbuilder counted 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at its Newport News shipyard in Virginia, which has a total of 25,000 employees. Its Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, with 11,500 employees, saw 17 cases by April 12.
Where Huntington Ingalls is the exception, however, is in its open approach to communications around the coronavirus. Each day, on its public website, the shipmaker updates the number of confirmed coronavirus cases among its workers. Jennifer Boykin, the president of Newport News Shipbuilding, also updates the workforce about new policies and concerns around coronavirus on her public Facebook page, where workers are allowed to freely air their concerns.
IndustryWeek talked to Boykin on Friday, April 10, about why Huntington Ingalls is taking an open approach to employee communications around the virus. Boykin also shared what other measures the company is taking to prevent further transmission of the virus.
As of Friday, you've had 17 employees who work at Newport News shipyard and 3 others on site who’ve tested posted for COVID-19. How concerned are you?
There’s not a day that goes by that I am not concerned, from the beginning of the day through the end, for a broad number of reasons. From the very beginning when we activated our crisis management team, my four guiding principles, which have held true, have been: First, the safety of the employees. Second, support the critical mission. Third, keep the business up and running. And fourth, communicate, communicate, communicate.
The virus itself—the more we learn about it, the more we know. There's a lot of information available, and we have continued to go to the Virginia Health Department and other trusted sources that my staff medical team recommends to make sure that we're taking every precaution to keep employees as safe as possible: Work from home if you can. Stay home if you feel sick. Social distance, wear a mask, practice good hygiene.
The other thing that we've done is asked the employees—because there's 550 acres here and we have 25,000 employees—for ideas that they have in their work environments of things that can make a difference. And we're pretty fast at processing those and, and putting in place things that that can help the local teams.
What employee suggestions have you implemented?
Suggestions have included reminding employees that if their spouse loses a job, maybe because they're in the service industry, that counts as a life event and they can add their spouse to their insurance if they haven't done so already.
We have a sail loft in the shop which is essentially a sewing room. We had lots of suggestions to have the people that work in the sail loft begin making masks, which our sail loft is now doing. We had lots of suggestions for the 3D-printing capability in the yard to print masks and other PPE for the workforce.
We've had employees make suggestions about not using the turnstiles because it's a high touch point. We’ve had suggestions that we limit the riders from the external parking lot, or have shuttles from the external parking locations into the yard.
It really covers the gamut and they're very thoughtful. [Employees] are the ones who are most aware about the risks that they see in their environment.
How does that work? Is there a hotline where they can report these things?
It started through just emails. People would email or Facebook-message me because I've got a public Facebook page. The communications team was helping process this, but as the suggestions continued, we just set up a “my idea” sort of email address. Just over the last day, we’ve had over 20 new suggestions coming in. Like so many other things, this has evolved to keep up with the pace.
On your website you’ve been reporting the number of people who have tested positive at the shipyard and the facilities they work in. You’ve been communicating openly on Facebook and employees can be open about responding there. I think a lot of companies would be reluctant to have that openness. Why have you gone with the more transparent approach?
Roughly half of my 25,000 Newport News employees are production employees, and they don't all have access to business email. So business email is not a viable solution for me to communicate with everyone. Printed communication doesn't always work in this industrial environment. We have a high degree of security here. So video conferencing or WebEx and a lot of the tools that are available to more white-collar businesses aren't necessarily effective here. So we made a commitment early on to try to communicate as much as we could. Facebook provides a good medium for doing that.
That said, it's not always easy seeing a lot of the negative comments that come back, but it does not change the fact that as a leader of this business, it is my responsibility to communicate and to be transparent. The greatest impact on the sense of team is trust. I have to trust that they're going to share what their concerns are. They have to trust that I'm doing everything I can. And I don't know how that trust would work if neither of us were sharing with each other.
It’s an obligation of the leadership team to be as transparent as possible and as timely. This is a very human crisis—on a number of fronts, not just the health and safety aspect of it or the financial and economic impact of it, but, but socially and professionally. I mean, in every way that's personal to us. And knowing that your leadership team is talking to you, even when you don't agree with all the decisions being made, is critical. I believe that.
Are the negative comments on Facebook from employees helpful? Or just noise?
They’re definitely helpful. Our comms team will do a social media sweep every day and they're looking for negative and positive themes and especially, “Is there a new theme here?” They evaluate the engagement of the shipbuilders on some posts.
There are times when a very good social debate takes place [on Facebook] among different folks in the in the workforce and in the community. At the end of the day, what's happening in so many communities is, on the one hand, a real fear and risk of the virus and its health impact “on me, my family, and my neighbors.” On the other hand, there's a very real fear and risk of the financial impact “that me and my family and my community will suffer if I'm not working and getting a paycheck.” And there is no simple solution. People are forced to make really tough decisions.
I get that. I've got family members who are dealing with the virus. I've got family members in the service industries. I mean, it's very human. So I think being out front and being clear with all of the things that we are doing and saying, “If there's something we haven't thought about, let us know.” And also saying, “Due to some of the recent controls we’ve put in place, effective Monday, everyone's expected to bring a mask. If can't be easily 6 feet away from other people, you should have your mask on."
When the CDC guidance on masks changed, you can imagine every person in every organization ordered masks. So I shared with the team that we've ordered thousands of masks, but it's going to take some time for them to show up. And, “here’s the CDC information on how to make your own mask. It would be more convenient if I could give everyone a mask, but that’s not the reality right now. Because everyone is looking for them. So find an old T-shirt, or find a bandana, and make your mask and bring it in to protect yourself and your teammates.”
You have implemented something called liberal leave where if employees don't feel safe coming to work, they're able to take some unpaid leave.
Yes, it essentially enables employees all employees to make that decision without fear of losing their job. If they don't have vacation, they won't get paid for a leave, but they don't have to worry about not having a job to come back to. And the time that they are docking doesn't count against them in terms of their [employment] duration. So it's really just a message that says, “if you don't feel safe, you have the option to make that personal decision and not worry about not having a job on the other side of it.”
What percentage of employees is taking liberal leave?
There are definitely more people working than not. But a good percentage of the workforce is taking that leave for many reasons. I think the primary reason is the governor of Virginia made a decision to cancel school for the balance of the year. What we see in some of the data that we're looking at now is that's the primary driver.
My obligation is to make this place as safe as possible. So that when you get to the point that you can and do choose to come back to work, you have some assurance. We've got cleaning crews that are working around the clock—the unsung heroes in the industrial environment. The shipbuilders who, they and their family members, are making masks at home to give to their co-workers. I've had three different masks dropped off today. I'll take them home, I'll wash them and they'll be in my in my mix.
And the leadership team who's trying to keep the wheels turning and looking out for each of their team members—that comes with its own set of challenges. But we are determined and I am committed to making sure that we do everything we can to keep the shipyard as clean and as safe as possible and minimize the touchpoints.
Are your cleaning crews employees or contractors?
They are employees. But as this started we also contracted with a couple of local companies that have the capability and equipment and materials to do deep cleaning.
Are there any physical areas of the shipyard that have been especially challenging as far as social distancing? And if so, how are you addressing that?
Yeah, there are parts of our production area. And there are work evolutions that require people to work together in quarters that are less than six feet apart. We started looking at those environments at the beginning. We put the mandatory PPE rules in place earlier.
We also look at each of those jobs to see where we can reengineer them.
If neither of those measures work, we try to limit exposure where we can. Along with that, each morning, every supervisor is asking his or her team members who are at work the same questions: Are you feeling well, have you had a temperature? Do you have a cough? Have you been exposed to someone testing positive? Is there any reason that you're feeling ill? [If they answer yes, they’re sent home and processed for leave.]
All of them know that they have the option to say—and this is the final question as a supervisor: Are you comfortable going to work in this environment? If they say, no, they're not, then they don't.
We’ve been fairly successful, but I don't want to be misleading. When you're building a ship, there are areas where it takes two people holding something or it takes one person and the inspector beside that person in close quarters.
Do you think any of these policies or new ways of doing things—are you going to continue to do them after the threat of the virus has passed? Are there best practices here to hang on to?
Before the virus, I think we all had convinced ourselves that it was it would be much harder to have a large number of people work from home. We now have a significant percent of our white-collar workforce that is working from home.
Over the last five or so years, we've been on the path to transition to digital shipbuilding. This has really enabled us from a bandwidth standpoint, from a IT security standpoint, from laptop standpoint, to move people to work-from-home much sooner and more efficiently than I think we would have thought otherwise.
The shipyard is on a peninsula and parking for 134 years has been a challenge—I bet even when they were coming to work on horse-and-buggy it was a challenge. Now some of the comments that we see on Facebook are that the work-from-home thing is great because the rest of us who can't work from home find it much easier to find a parking spot. So we will we will figure out what the right balance of that is, when we come through this.
What is the mood like at the shipyard now? How are people feeling about being at work?
There’s definitely not one mood. I can assure you that there are there are people who are very, very appreciative of the fact that we are still open because they need the financial stability of the work. And there are many people who are coming to work because they need this stability, but they also have what they consider high-risk situations, whether it's taking care of an elderly parent or maybe an autoimmune family member. From that population, there’s a mood of anxiety and fear. And then, we have a large number of new employees here, and a number of them are younger and when you think about it, they've never lived or worked through anything like this. I would say very they definitely there's a population that believes in the dissipative nature of our open [communications].
As the leader here, my obligation is to understand that all of those moods exist; that all of those fears and concerns are real. And that through the decisions that my leadership team and I make, we communicate why we are doing what we’re doing as clearly and as often as we can. People may not like the decision, but I do believe they appreciate the sharing.
Is there anything in your background that you want to call out that has helped prepare you for this crisis?
Maybe being the middle of five kids, right? Everybody has an opinion. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I have a large family and all the concerns in the mood that exists here exist in my family. This is a family challenge across the nation and the world. We're all in this together.
This is a great workforce. We’ve been the economic engine in this region for 134 years. There is no missing the importance of this business staying open. And there's no missing that this is an unprecedented health crisis and that being the largest employer is right now maybe a double-edged sword. It's all the more important that we stay open and keep people safe because they're going into the community in every direction every day. So we have to be diligent.
Main photo: Cleaning crews deep clean a Huntington Ingalls facility at night. The company shares cleaning-team photos so employees worried about returning to work can track the safety measures in place at the buildings where they work.
Images of Facebook feedback from employees are taken from the public Facebook pages of Jennifer Boykin and Huntington Ingalls.