Defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin will slow down production work at its F-35 fighter jet factory in Fort Worth and put workers on alternating shifts to deal with disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bethesda, Maryland-based company said it will drop production by 18 to 24 aircraft over the next three months, but still hopes to hit its delivery target of 141 jets by the end of the year.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lockheed has had supply problems for the jet assembly done in Fort Worth.
“The delays are primarily from suppliers that produce sub-components and connectors for the aircraft,” said Lockheed spokesman Brett Ashworth.
Ashworth said the delays are both within the United States and from overseas suppliers. Lockheed Martin is also “accelerating payments to small and vulnerable suppliers” to help speed production.
Starting May 23, Lockheed Martin will change schedules at the plant for the 2,500 manufacturing workers on the project. Employees will work two weeks on and then one week off. If employees hit 96 hours of work in those two weeks, they will get paid for all three weeks.
“The alternate schedule allows Lockheed Martin to staff the production line to meet a slower workflow resulting from supplier delays,” the company said in a statement. “In addition, it provides a work rhythm that retains the expertise of the talented workforce and provides opportunities to adjust work to better support production.”
Lockheed Martin won a new $34 billion contract in October to make 478 more F-35 jets, adding to the $406 billion initial cost for the program.
It’s the most expensive program in the Pentagon’s budget and is aimed at giving the U.S. and its allies superior air capabilities for decades to come. It’s come under scrutiny for rising costs and has a total price tag of more than $1 trillion through the 2070s.
Lockheed Martin produced 134 of the advanced fighter jets by the end of 2019 and had reported that it had lowered the cost for each jet to under $78 million.
To deal with COVID-19-related problems, Lockheed said it will split workers into three teams, alternating on a rotating schedule that gives a week off for every two weeks on. The company said it will reevaluate the program every three weeks, but it is intended to run through early September.
Lockheed Martin has continued production on its F-35 line and at other factories after being deemed an essential business. But it has also come under scrutiny when a worker at the Fort Worth factory died after telling supervisors he had been exposed to COVID-19.
More than 5,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for Lockheed Martin to shut down the manufacturing facility because of the risk of employees spreading the coronavirus at the plant.
Ashworth said Lockheed Martin has implemented social distancing on the production line “where possible” and is trying to reconfigure work to space employees farther apart.
“We continue to use best practices to mitigate risks and protect the health and well-being of our employees and partners, while ensuring we meet our commitments to national security,” Ashworth said. “When circumstances warrant, we deep clean work areas and common spaces in any facility with elevated exposure to COVID-19 and regularly share exposure-prevention protocols to reinforce healthy behaviors.”
There are about 18,500 aeronautics division workers at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth. The 2,500 workers that are part of the shift rescheduling are unionized and the company worked with the local International Association of Machinists branch on the changes.
The IAM Local 774 did not respond to requests for comment.