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Boeing says it will suspend 737 MAX production; Renton businesses and workers react

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Boeing workers exit the plant in front of a giant mural of a jet on the side of the manufacturing building behind Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Renton, Wash.

Boeing plans to temporarily halt production of the 737 MAX in Renton beginning in January, but the company said there will not be any layoffs or furloughs at this time.

Boeing employs about 69,000 people in Washington, including about 12,000 in Renton. The company said in a statement that it plans to keep employees doing 737-related work or assign them temporarily to other teams in the region.

“We will continue to assess our progress towards return to service milestones and make determinations about resuming production and deliveries accordingly,” the company said.

There’s been a lot of anxiety among Boeing employees since the 737 MAX was grounded by federal aviation regulators in March following two deadly crashes — one in Ethiopia in March and an earlier crash in Indonesia in October 2018.

At the Landing shopping area just across the street from the Boeing plant in Renton, workers took time for smoking breaks or to grab lunch. Many declined to do interviews, but one man spoke on the condition that his name not be used. He said company executives have been doing what they can to shield employees from the financial toll of having the plane grounded.

“They know that they made the mistake with those airplanes,” he said. “They’re going to do everything they can not to make us pay for their screw-up.”

Boeing has been building the single-aisle 737 MAX without being able to deliver any to customers since the grounding. The company says it now has about 400 planes in storage.

The news that workers will not be furloughed even though production will be suspended will likely come as a relief to local businesses in Renton. Many restaurants and shops at the Landing depend on serving Boeing workers.

That includes Torero's Mexican Restaurant, where Boeing workers come to fill up on soft tacos loaded with carne asada or pork carnitas.

Veronica Medina is manager of the restaurant and one of the owners. She said she's been concerned that even people who don't work for Boeing may start to spend less out of fear about a regional downturn.

“It’s the trickle-down effect that happens, that people get afraid, when it’s not necessarily affecting them directly but indirectly,” Medina said. “People start saving and holding onto their money.”

Renton may no longer be quite the Boeing company town that it used to be, as the region’s economy has diversified. But it’s not hard to find people with deep ties to the airplane manufacturer.

Troy Holland is a pilot who flies Boeing 757s for FedEx and grew up in Renton. His father, grandfather and grandmother all worked for Boeing. And while he said the grounding of the 737 MAX and now the halt of production will take a toll on the local economy, the region has more capacity to weather it.

“The overall economy here in the Seattle area will take somewhat of a hit,” Holland said. “But hey, we’ve got Amazon, we’ve got Microsoft, we’ve got Starbucks. Boeing is no longer the only Fortune 500 here in Seattle.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.