USW Members Persevere at Nuclear Fuel Services During Pandemic

Members of Local 9-677 at the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant in Erwin, Tenn., are considered “essential workers” because they produce nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and the country’s national defense program.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the local and the company have diligently followed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for preventing exposure to Covid-19, said Local 9-677 chief steward Heath Shook.

Enhanced cleaning happens across the site, he said, as well as social distancing, hand washing and hand sanitizing. Plus, workers have available to them N95 respirators and surgical and cloth masks.

“Employees who experience Covid-19-like symptoms, have potentially been exposed, or are ill have been instructed to stay home,” NFS said in a statement to the media when the company reported it had confirmed cases of Covid-19 among its employees. None of those afflicted were bargaining unit workers, Shook said, and he added that the union and the company doubled-down on the Covid-19 exposure prevention measures.

MOU negotiated

Local 9-677 negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NFS to address pay and benefit issues for those who are quarantined.

Shook said that if a worker experiences Covid-19 symptoms, he or she is automatically quarantined with full pay for 10 work days, and after that date, the person goes on sick leave until recovery.

Likewise, if an employee’s family member has Covid-19 symptoms, the worker goes into quarantine and receives regular pay for 10 work days.

This MOU helped when a salaried person had Covid-19 and the 19 employees in that person’s department had to go into quarantine as well for 14 days. Shook said they all received their regular pay during quarantine.

Those at high risk of getting sick from exposure to Covid-19 because of immune disorders, diabetes, heart or lung problems can take an excused absence without pay, he said.

In all cases, he said employees retain their health insurance.

Shook said everyone is back at work now, and that NFS staggers the work shifts and daily reminds its employees of the need to engage in social distancing. He said the company also sent home the contractors, who were deemed non-essential workers.

“Hourly workers are deemed essential, and we would be the last ones to go home if the plant shut down,” Shook said, adding, “There is no talk of shutting it down.”

The quality work at NFS resulted in the BWX Technologies, Inc. subsidiary receiving $128 million in contract options from the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program at the end of March.

The site also produces low-enriched uranium that is necessary for creating tritium in civilian nuclear reactors for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapons program.

A nuclear trade publication reported that NFS may purify defense uranium for the weapons program around 2023. The NNSA is negotiating with the company to act as a backup for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in a few years.

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