Irving lays off workers, shuts down Halifax Shipyard for three weeks

Shipbuilders and Irving employees attend the announcement of Lockheed Martin Canada as the designer of 15 new Canadian Surface Combatants to be built at Irving Shipbuilding's Halifax shipyard in Halifax on Friday, February 8, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese.

Irving Shipbuilding is suspending work at the Halifax Shipyard and its Marine Fabricators and Woodside Industries locations for three weeks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company issued layoff notices Thursday afternoon, noting that the shutdown will be assessed on a weekly basis.

The decision impacts 1,100 of the 1,800 workers at those sites.

“This decision became necessary given the high density of the employee population in certain work areas, high absenteeism, and reduced critical vendor support in materials and services,” the layoff notice says.

“This decision was made in consultation with our Government of Canada customers.”

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The shipyard has federal contracts for six Arctic and offshore patrol vessels, and for 15 Canadian Surface Combatant ships.

One worker at the shipyard says he’s feeling relieved about the shutdown. He has asked to not be identified because he fears retribution from his employer.

In an interview, he said the mood in the shipyard this week has been “hostile.”

“Every employee that I’ve discussed with … was urging the company to shut down. Everyone felt the work area was unsafe,” he said.

“We understand that it’s a business and that they’re striving to get Ship 1 released, but at the same time health and safety is a major factor when it comes to this.”

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Irving Shipbuilding president Kevin McCoy said the company heard complaints from workers, who weren’t showing up to work due to issues with childcare or fears about the virus spreading.

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“Probably the most heartwarming part of the whole week was standing at the gate and as our folks were leaving, having them thank us almost to a person for doing the right thing,” McCoy said.

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Public health officials in Nova Scotia have limited gatherings to 50 people or fewer in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

“In order to follow the public health guidance, the distances we’d have to separate some of our trades folks would not enable us to continue building ships,” McCoy said.

McCoy said Irving had staggered lunch breaks, break times, and shifts, but could not keep a reasonable operation going.

Unionized workers are being paid for this week and the week of March 23, but beyond that they are being told they can use vacation or banked overtime to make up for lost wages.

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The layoff notice also points people to the federal emergency aid, announced Wednesday.

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The worker who spoke to Global News said his family will have to figure out how to pay the bills this month.

“It’s definitely going to be a stressful time,” the worker said.

“It seems like such an important company, a wealthy employer, you almost feel like during this hard time they would just pay for the three weeks.”

Irving Shipbuilding also says it is expanding work from home options and other flexible work measures for the approximately 700 people not impacted by the layoff notice.

It’s likely the shutdown will affect the delivery date of the ships underway at the shipyard now.

“They’re our unionized trade labourers who do all the day-to-day assembly of our ships,” said McCoy.

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