BATH — Monday marked the first day back to work for Bath Iron Works employees who chose to take extended leave to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.

Employee attendance, which had been down 25% to 30%, returned to “pre-COVID levels” on Monday, according to David Hench, BIW spokesman.

“With that in mind, there have been numerous changes made to promote safety and maintain workplace distancing, including modifying end-of-shift workflows and turnstile exit procedures to increase spacing; limiting vehicles within and between BIW properties to one occupant; allowing people under certain circumstances to continue telecommuting; maintaining an aggressive cleaning schedule throughout the shipyard, and providing face coverings for all employees and encouraging their use,” Hench said.

The company also continues to advise employees to take their temperature before coming into work, but it isn’t mandatory, according to a notice issued to employees on Friday.

BIW, a subsidiary of defense and aerospace company General Dynamics, employs 6,800 Mainers from every county in the state. Union officials and state lawmakers have expressed concerns about the potential for a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 at the shipyard since the disease reached Maine.

Rob Hopper, a BIW employee for over six years, returned to work Monday after taking unpaid leave for seven weeks to protect his son, who has epilepsy. He said he was nervous about returning to work, but was pleasantly surprised by the safety precautions put in place.

“I think they’re at least trying to be safe,” said Hopper. “At this point, I feel comfortable going back. I wasn’t any more uncomfortable at work than I would be going to get groceries.”

Hopper said he took his temperature before going to work and chose to wear a mask at work “because I felt it was the responsible thing to do.” He estimated a little over half the employees he encountered Monday wore masks.

“It was a long day back, but it was a good day back,” said Hopper.

Jessica Chubbuck-Goodwin, president of the Local S7 union, said some employees were ready to return to work while others weren’t sure how to feel about the safety precautions the company put in place.

“It’s only the first day,” she said. “It’s a mixed bag at this point, and there’s still a lot that remains to be seen.

Despite the safety precautions, Chubbuck-Goodwin said it’s important to remember COVID-19 hasn’t left Maine, and the number of statewide cases continues to rise.

“We’d all love for this to be over, but we can’t just snap our fingers and have everything to be over, that’s not how it works,” she said. “COVID-19 is here and it’s beyond the control of any of us. We just have to follow the guidance of the experts.”

As of Monday, Maine health officials reported 1,462 coronavirus cases in Maine, and 65 people have died from the disease.

BIW reported that two employees had tested positive for the virus, but there hasn’t been another case since early April. Both employees recovered and have since returned to work.

As workers resume normal attendance, the company is slowly re-opening its shuttle program that brought most employees to work from satellite lots prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The buses can only carry 10 passengers at a time and all employees must wear a face covering to ride.

According to a 2019 city report, BIW uses 1,604 parking spaces spread across 16 parking lots. This includes three satellite lots – the Taste of Maine parking lot in Woolwich, the MaineDOT Park and Ride lot on State Road in Bath off Route 1, and the Maine Gravel parking lot in West Bath.

Under the updated guidelines, bus transportation from the Taste of Maine and the Maine Maritime Museum was made available Monday for the first shift. Third shift shuttle bus transportation to and from the West Bath shuttle lot at 333 State Road began Sunday, May 10. Employees working second shift can park in all lots after 3 p.m.

After BIW announced all workers must return to work beginning May 11, the company gave employees the option to request an alternative shift assignment or request an unpaid leave of absence for a minimum of 30 calendar days, up to 90 calendar days. But, the notice to employees stated a leave of absence will be granted to employees who have, or live with a family member who has, a medical condition that puts them in the coronavirus “high-risk” category as defined by the Centers for Disease Control.

Employees could also apply for leave if they’re caring for a child or if there are “circumstances beyond the employee’s control which will prevent their ability to report to work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Hench would not comment on how many employees chose to request a leave of absence or how the extended decrease in employee attendance affected production at the shipyard.

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