A Norwegian soldier administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a civilian contractor at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on June 4, 2021.

A Norwegian soldier administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a civilian contractor at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on June 4, 2021. U.S. Army / Spc. Clara Soria-Hernandez

As COVID Hits Defense Factories, Some Workers Push Back on Vaccine Mandate

Some Republican lawmakers say the requirement will compromise national security.

Defense companies are preparing to lay off thousands of employees, largely factory workers, who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine before the Dec. 8 deadline.

The CEOs of America’s largest defense companies this week warned these layoffs could delay weapon manufacturing. Some companies are already hiring new employees in anticipation of workers walking off the job or being fired because they refuse to comply with last month’s executive order that the employees of federal contractors be vaccinated.

“We are proactively increasing our hiring now in anticipation that we may have some loss of workers and we are ensuring that we have training and skill building programs in place once we bring those new employees into the workplace so they can get productive and efficient as quickly as possible,” Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden said Thursday during the company’s quarterly earnings call.

Privately, many defense industry leaders praise the vaccine mandates, which they say help protect their important and vulnerable workforces. Some say they’re frustrated by workers who refuse to get vaccinated amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 750,000 in the United States and has cost the industry millions of dollars and the Pentagon billions.

“If you don’t like science, don’t work for a science company,” one industry source said.

The vaccine resistance has largely come from blue-collar factory workers, according to industry sources. It’s also more prevalent in the southern parts of the country, including Alabama and Texas, which are critical hubs for defense manufacturing.

“It's not been terribly well received by a pretty sizable portion of our employees, but people are working their way through it,” Textron CEO Scott Donnelly said Thursday on his company’s quarterly earnings call.

Textron’s Bell, the helicopter maker, is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and has manufacturing in other parts of the state. Texas has banned vaccine mandates, but the Pentagon said that federal guidance supersedes local laws.

The Aerospace Industries Association, a defense industry trade organization, said its membership “stands together as we prepare to implement the new federal vaccine requirement, while working with our government partners as they develop detailed guidance.” 

Some chief executives, including Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes, had already put vaccine mandates in place before President Biden issued the order on Sept. 9.

But as the clock ticks down to December, it’s become clear that none of the companies will reach 100 percent. There’s increasing fear that production lines could shut down if skilled trades workers or engineers are let go.

“It's a curveball we wish we didn't have, but we're managing our way through it,” Donnelly said.

Workers at shipbuilder Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, some workers reportedly walked off the job in advance of the vaccine mandate. At General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works in Maine, one union estimates that about 1,400 of the 4,800 workers it represents are unvaccinated, according to Mainebiz. Industry-wide, the vaccination rate of white-collar office workers is much higher than blue-collar workers in the factories, company sources said.

Some 37 percent of unvaccinated workers said they would quit their job if their employer implemented a vaccine mandate, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey. That number jumps to 72 percent if the company did not offer weekly testing as an alternative to the vaccine.

The pending layoffs throughout the defense industry “will inevitably compromise national security for decades,” a group of House Republicans said in a letter to President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“We strongly urge you to reconsider the manner in which you are seeking to address this issue so as not to harm the livelihood of civilian contractors, industry partners, and strategic goals of our armed services,” they wrote.

Many factory workers have shown up to work throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic and were exempt from local stay-at-home restrictions in 2020. But COVID-sick workers are still hurting productivity and costing companies millions of dollars and the Pentagon billions.

Northrop Grumman disclosed its Aeronautics Systems business, which builds the B-21 bomber, took a 6 percent loss in the third quarter in part due to the number of sick employees who could not work. Los Angeles County public health data showed that more than 400 workers at the company’s Palmdale, California, factory, were sick with COVID earlier this year. The same database shows the site currently has just seven workers sick with COVID.

Warden, Northrop’s CEO, said the company is "early in our stage of collecting data about our employee status," but "have a good sense that a vast majority of our employees are vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated."

Even if the large defense firms are able to get most of their workers vaccinated, companies still fear disruption further down an already shaky supply chain.

“It is uncertain to what extent compliance with the vaccine mandate may result in workforce attrition for us or our suppliers,” Lockheed Martin wrote in an SEC filing. “If attrition is significant, our operations and ability to execute on our contracts could be adversely affected.”

Throughout the pandemic, defense companies have regularly been hiring thousands of skilled workers to build the Pentagon’s next generation warships, weapons and aircraft. In many cases it takes several years to train certain trades, like ship and submarine welders.

Vaccination trends at companies largely mirror the trends of where they are geographically located, but that’s not always the case. Last month the president of General Dynamics’ Electric Boat said only about half of the 14,000 workers at its submarine-making factories in Connecticut and Rhode Island are vaccinated. In communities surrounding the factories, more than 70 percent of residents are vaccinated. General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic this week during a quarterly earnings call estimated that about 75 percent of General Dynamics 84,000 U.S.-based employees are vaccinated.

The heads of defense companies with larger commercial businesses have been pushing vaccines for months, long before the federal contractor mandate. Raytheon Technologies—the second-largest defense contractor, but also a major supplier to planemakers Boeing and Airbus—began requiring employees to get vaccinated long before the federal mandate.

More than 743,050 people have died of COVID in the United States, including at least 1,381 on Thursday. Getting vaccinated drastically lowers the chances that a person will get seriously ill or die of COVID and substantially lowers their ability to spread the disease.