Kansas may help pay workers at Spirit AeroSystems if the grounded Boeing 737 Max doesn't return to the sky soon, Gov. Laura Kelly said.
Kelly said she talked with Spirit CEO Tom Gentile on Tuesday, one day after Boeing announced that it was temporarily halting production of the 737 Max as it struggles to get approval from regulators to put the plane back in service.
Although the jet has been grounded since March following a pair of deadly crashes, Spirit has continued to build 737 Max fuselages. It now has dozens of the fuselages lined up on a tarmac near the company's south Wichita factory.
Kelly said Gentile is optimistic that production of the aircraft will resume soon and that he told her he's not expecting to have to lay off workers.
"They will need to do some modifications of their work schedules and whatnot," Kelly said. "What I've told Tom was that I've already gotten my secretary of labor together with my secretary of commerce, and they will be working with Spirit to bring all the resources that the state does have to offer to the table to help Spirit get through this."
Among those resources, the state may need to use its unemployment system to help pay the workers, Kelly said.
"We've done this before," she said. "It's not unusual to go in what we call a shared-work program, for instance, where they remain employees of Spirit, get a reduced paycheck, and we backfill that with unemployment benefits," Kelly said.
She said it's important to keep the Spirit workers employed so that the city and state don't lose that talent pool, which will be needed if and when the 737 Max goes back into production.
In 2005, Boeing sold its Wichita and Oklahoma operations. The new company formed to take over those facilities was Spirit AeroSystems. Since then, Spirit has gone from being a single-source supplier for Boeing to an independent global supplier with multiple customers, though Boeing remains by far its largest customer. And the 737 program is its largest piece of Boeing business.
It's unknown how much the state might end up paying the Spirit workers. A company spokesman said in an email that Spirit has about 13,500 employees in Wichita.