The Electrical Worker online
July 2020

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CRISES ARE A CALLING for the brothers and sisters of New York City Local 3. They were on the front lines when the towers fell. When Hurricane Sandy wreaked destruction. When other states and nations have cried out for help after storms and earthquakes.

Nothing prepared them for COVID-19.

By the end of March, the world's eyes had shifted from hotspots in Asia and Europe to the pandemic's new center: their hometown.

"There's nothing that's comparable," Business Manager Chris Erikson said nearly three months into a catastrophe he couldn't have fathomed. "Nothing."

Not even the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, when Local 3 members ran toward the pile to aid rescue and recovery, then spent weeks in the toxic air of Ground Zero, rewiring Lower Manhattan. Not even the economic crash of 2008 that put 3,000 of Erikson's members out of work for a year.

Splice those nightmares and you get COVID-19. Sick and dying patients spilling out of emergency rooms. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers jobless. A noisy, crowded, manic metropolis silenced, vacant.

No one has been left unscathed. Like the city at large, IBEW members have experienced illness and death, layoffs and furloughs, fear that their jobs will be next, fear they'll be exposed to the virus, fear they'll infect their families. They've had to make hard decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods, just as billions of others around the world have had to do.

But as always, they've risen to the occasion. They've built temporary hospitals and kept essential jobsites running. They've done the agonizing work of powering mobile morgues. They've given generously to charities, staffed food pantries and even helped get urgently needed protective gear to area hospitals.

"We need you to lead by example," Erikson, a third-generation Local 3 leader and chairman of the IBEW's Executive Council, told members in a video message in early April.

He never doubted they would.

Masks and other strict rules are part of the new normal for New York's building trades, as illustrated by Local 3 journeymen at the Javits Center addition. From left: Gene Nagle, Hank Soderlund, Robert Benenati and Alex "Archie" Alcantara. See Letter to the Editor for a letter from Alcantara about essential workers.

BY THE END OF MAY, more than 80 members of Local 3 had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Thirteen active members and 19 retirees had died.

Sean McDonald was one of the survivors, but only after a frightening 11-day hospital stay.

The virus was still creeping into the city when he started coughing. Seasonal allergies, he figured. He was a healthy 44-year-old looking forward to a week's vacation as he left his jobsite across from Grand Central Station on Friday, March 13.

By Sunday, he'd quarantined himself in an upstairs room in his Nassau County home, apart from his wife, a pediatric nurse, and their four children. Five days later he was in the hospital. Isolated, he prayed his family wasn't infected, prayed that he wouldn't need a ventilator.

"That was going through my head most of the time," said McDonald, a journeyman wireman and drummer in Local 3's Sword of Light pipe band.

If his oxygen levels didn't improve, he knew the lightweight nasal cannula sending air through his nostrils wouldn't be enough. A machine would have to breathe for him through a tube in his windpipe. He'd be sedated, unable to talk or eat. His odds of recovery would drop dramatically.

"What do I have to do to prevent that?" McDonald asked his medical team — nurses who were covered head to toe in protective gear; doctors who mainly checked on him by phone. They gave him a plastic device for breathing exercises.

"You blow in, you blow out, you suck in as hard as you can. It's a little plastic device. I would do it all the time."


Wearing the required PPE, a Local 3 crew works on security and alarm systems on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge spanning the East River.

LEN COPICOTTO didn't get ill. But he was shrouded by risk.

He was one year into a survey contract in March, testing and tracing every circuit and outlet at a Queens hospital to ensure that no critical equipment would fail during planned renovations.

"There are kiosks around the hospital with masks, Purell, Kleenex," said the Local 3 journeyman, who is carrying on the legacy of his father and grandfather. "For a year, I never saw anybody touch them."

In the blink of an eye, the kiosks were busy. Anxiety was palpable. The hospital had gone from signage asking visitors if they'd been in China recently to converting wings into triage units and filling one floor after another with COVID-19 patients.

Copicotto dove into science journals, educating himself about the disease without a media filter. Understanding what was coming was one thing. Arriving at work to find a mobile refrigeration unit in the hospital's parking lot was another.

"It was one of those wake-up calls. We could see it from the window of our shanty. I said, 'Oh my God, guys, I hope you know what's parked right next to us right now. This is going to get bad.'"


Assigned to a Queens hospital, journeyman Len Copicotto had the grim duty of wiring a mobile morgue.

THE SIGNS stalked Erin Sullivan as she crossed the Hudson River en route to renovation work at a high-rise law firm near Rockefeller Center.

"I'd had a cough and a headache for several days and I kept seeing these blinking signs on the Tappan Zee Bridge: 'Stay at Home, Stay at Home,'" said Sullivan, a journeyman wireworker and the local's mentoring director.

"It was a really tough decision because we are so conditioned to show up and work," she said. "If we don't show up, we don't get paid, so a lot of us show up even we don't feel all that good. It's the norm."

But there was nothing normal about COVID-19.

"It was scary because nobody knew what was going on," Sullivan said. "And people at this point were starting to die. I knew someone who'd been healthy who had passed away in three days. He was 52, just like me."

By that day, March 19, the city had recorded nearly 4,000 infections, double the day before. Concerned for her coworkers as much as herself, Sullivan called her foreman and headed home. Four days later, cases had tripled and her jobsite shut down.


'I Nearly Lost My Favorite Person in the World'

Ernie Miller hadn't seen his wife for 28 excruciating days. Melissa Miller, 49, spent half that time on a ventilator, 22 days in total at the Augusta University Medical Center ICU and another week in a rehab facility.

The journeyman wireman and 32-year member of Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 was working as a field engineer at Plant Vogtle nuclear station in late April when he contracted COVID-19. Vogtle is the largest ongoing project in the IBEW, employing nearly 2,000 electricians at its peak, and when the virus hit the massive worksite, it spread swiftly.

In a week, the number of confirmed cases at the site grew from a handful to 232. The 9,000-strong workforce was cut by 20% and many workers were given the option to quarantine for two weeks at first, then more.

"It started as a little cough, a sore throat," Miller said. Then Melissa, whose immune system was already weakened from chemotherapy, started experiencing similar symptoms. "After a week and a half, we had fevers and couldn't take a deep breath. We were sleeping in recliners in the living room because we couldn't lie flat."

The time had come to go to the hospital on May 2. Melissa couldn't take more than a few steps, her breathing had become so labored. So, Miller dropped her at the door of the emergency room and headed to park the car. It was the last time he'd see her in person for another month.

"If it weren't for the incredible men and women of the ICU, I don't know what we'd have done," he said. "I nearly lost my favorite person in the world to this virus, and I brought it home to her. We don't know enough about this disease. We don't know if you can get it twice. I'm scared to death to give it to her again," he said as he faced the prospect of returning to work in early June.

Miller has some advice for his IBEW sisters and brothers. "This is not just a big city virus, and it's not close to over. Keep wearing your masks and PPE. Do your best to keep distance on jobs. I don't want anyone to have to go through what we did."


Ernie and Melissa Miller, pictured before COVID-19, contracted on the IBEW's largest jobsite, upended their lives.


IN HIS MISSION to protect lives and jobs, Erikson is rethinking everything. No detail is too small.

He has 30,000 members to consider, 300 employees, and his union's bottom line. Some 6,300 members were still laid off at the end of May, roughly 65% of the construction division. If the governor hadn't deemed many projects "essential," the pain would have been even greater.

Erikson had to lay off about half the local's clerical workers and said he and all officers and business agents have taken pay cuts.

A skeleton staff at headquarters and others at home kept Local 3 functioning as the virus paralyzed the city at large. "I'm proud to say that not one retiree missed a pension check or annuity check through any of this," he said.

He is weighing the safest ways to revive the office and reopen the union hall — a gathering place as central to many Local 3 members as a parish church.

"We're going to try to limit the interaction as much as we can," Erikson said. "We've got to figure out how to work differently, how to have the least amount of person-to-person contact but not lose the sense that this is your union, that we work for you."

He can hear the voice of his legendary grandfather, Harry Van Arsdale Jr., who led Local 3 from the 1930s to the 1960s.

"Harry instilled in me that the only purpose of the union is to serve the membership," he said. "Work is getting done. I'm proud of that."

KENNY COHEN, a second-generation Local 3 journeyman, was assigned to high-voltage testing at New York University. When the virus closed his job, he had a choice: transfer to another site or take a furlough to help his family.

He had a baby and two school-age boys at home, along with their mom, a teacher juggling the kids, high-school English classes via Zoom and a looming deadline for her master's thesis.

Cohen took the reins of the household, grateful for priceless time with his 1-year-old namesake.

He found a way to pay it forward when a Local 3 brother running a food pantry asked him to help. Pained to see people still in line when the food ran out, he launched a GoFundMe page.

In two weeks, it raised $9,000, mostly from Local 3 members, money Cohen distributed to food pantries around the city. "The need continues to grow," he said. "It's not going to slow down anytime soon."

That's all too clear to Bronx-based signatory contractor E-J Electric and its Local 3 workforce — about 1,000 members, most of whom install and repair the city's traffic signals and streetlights.

With the company's owner footing the bill, workers prepare some 2,000 meal kits weekly for a Catholic Charities pop-up pantry. Filled with fresh produce, bread and protein, the kits can feed a small family for several days.

"Our first week, a lot of people didn't want to risk coming out to volunteer," said Dave Ferguson, head of the company's Roadway Division. "But that's changed. I think we all needed a cause to believe in."



Journeyman Kenny Cohen helped raise $9,000 for NYC food pantries as job losses caused need to soar.

Bay Area Transit Workers:
Virus Brings New Stress to Tough Times

Coronavirus hit the Bay Area early, prompting one of the nation's hastiest shelter-in-place orders on March 17. And while the quick action worked, resulting in a San Francisco mortality rate nearly 35 times lower than that of New York, the last several months have been no less stressful for IBEW members who continued to show up to work in critical jobs.

San Francisco Local 6 member Mike Henry is the shop maintenance superintendent at the Portrero Electric Trolley Bus facility, where he manages 75 workers, 50 of them IBEW members, who maintain a portion of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's fleet of electric buses.

"The drivers are really on the front lines," Henry said, "But the second they step off that bus at the end of their shift, our team is at risk."

Every bus, he said, is treated as "hot;" every surface has the potential to transfer the life-threatening virus. It's why he recommended early on, ahead of public officials, that his IBEW team adopt precautionary PPE use, a move that paid off when three drivers at the garage contracted COVID-19. The agency now requires every bus to be completely wiped down before driving or servicing it.

And the early action extended to officials at SFMTA, Henry said. "Communication has been key. The agency has been on top of the science and worked hard to keep everyone well informed."

But the added stress hasn't only been health-related, he said. Almost 11 weeks into a citywide lockdown — two weeks longer than most other major cities — the toll has been laid bare. Relationships have been strained; several of his members have separated from their partners. Like everywhere, homeschooling and childcare have added additional family obligations. And mental health and substance abuse issues have been magnified under the extra pressure.

And with ridership on the MTA system at historic lows, the agency's workers are concerned for their jobs in a region with some of the highest housing costs in the U.S.

"It's a lot to manage all at once," Henry said. "Our management, shop stewards, supervisors, they're doing important work to keep people safe. Right now, we need to support one another. Thankfully, it's not management versus union. This virus has brought us together. There's a lot of understanding and appreciation right now."


Mechanics at Portrero Electric Trolley Bus Facility, two-thirds members of San Francisco Local 6, take extra care to keep one another safe.


FOR TWO DECADES, shop steward Tom Mohan has wired at least a thousand convention exhibitions in New York City's mammoth Javits Center. Food, flowers, travel, the famous car show. And now a hospital.

Local 3 crews helped construct 2,000 rooms divided by wall panels that would have enclosed booths of beauty products, eyewear and restaurant supplies, among the canceled spring events.

With the Army Corps of Engineers in charge, safety was handled with military precision.

"If you were going to the hospital floor, there was only one way in," Mohan said. "You had to stop there and put on a gown, goggles, N95 mask and gloves. You would take it all off before exiting out the other side."

Even with all the precautions, "it was still a little nerve-wracking," he said. "You were always afraid you might bring something home to your family."

Setting up trade shows at the Javits can employ 70 electricians or more. In late May, with no events and the hospital cleared of patients, Mohan's shop was down to a small maintenance team.

"Everything's been canceled through the summer," he said. "I'm extremely nervous for my brothers and sisters that got laid off."

THE VIRUS erupted in Westchester County when cases to the south in New York were still in the single digits.

It was the first week of March. Lou Sanchez, a business representative in Local 3's White Plains office and 20-year member, was interviewing political candidates looking for union endorsements when his wife called.

"A teacher she shares a classroom with tested positive — same room, same computer," Sanchez said. "We quarantined at home for 14 days. Luckily no one got sick."

But thousands of county residents rapidly did. On March 22, the Westchester County Center was one of four sites Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated for overflow hospitals, telling the Army Corps to forge ahead, "no red tape." The Javits and two Long Island sites were the others, all employing IBEW members.

In just three weeks, Local 3 crews had helped construct 110 rooms from the studs up.

"They knew it would be dangerous to put 100 guys there, so they broke it up into 12-hour shifts around the clock," Sanchez said. "Everyone had their N95 masks, gloves, there was Purell everywhere. They were given their own space to work. Everyone was really proud to be there"


Local 3 crews helped turn the Javits Center into a 2,000-bed hospital, one of four overflow facilities built in April in and around the city. All employed IBEW members.


Medical workers get ready to enjoy "Heroes for Heroes" from signatory contractor E-J Electric, which sends sandwiches to area hospitals on Fridays. Their workers also pack some 2,000 meal kits weekly, one of many food bank projects drawing Local 3 volunteers.


North of NYC, Local 3 members in White Plains pose proudly outside the Westchester County Center they helped transform into an overflow hospital. The facility, along with the Javits and two on Long Island, went up in a matter of weeks.

Betting on Safety Pays Off in Nevada

The "new normal" of COVID-19 first hit Shannon Skinner the morning she walked into an empty show-up room at NV Energy.

Silence in a space normally humming with activity and cheer. "Our south yard is one big family," Skinner said. "You love going to work."

The veteran journeyman lineworker, foreman, and president of Las Vegas Local 396 found her crew and others outside, everyone keeping their distance.

"I'll never forget that first day," she said. It was March 13. Only eight infections had been reported so far in Clark County, but neither union nor employer were taking any chances.

Skinner lives and breathes safety on the job, active on every committee, laser-focused at every training. She remembers thinking, "'Oh my God, the things that we deal with every day, and now this.' It kind of brought tears to my eyes."

That week, she got a text from NV Energy's CEO asking her thoughts on balancing work and safety. The gist of her message back was, "You give us the tools to stay safe and we will keep the lights on in Las Vegas. Our community needs to see us. They need to see the big white truck."

And they have, in Las Vegas and at jobsites all over the desert, where Skinner's crew spends most of its time. They are as busy as ever with call-outs and maintenance, often opting to work seven days a week.

Without fail, they follow every rule COVID-19 has inspired. They travel separately and don't get any closer to customers than they do to each other. "If we don't feel safe, we have the authority to say, 'We can't work here,'" she said.

Only a handful of cases likely tied to personal travel, not work, have been reported at NV Energy. But Skinner's crew knows how deadly the virus can be: a brother on their team, an apprentice, lost a relative to it.

"That totally made it real for us," she said.

So they are vigilant, even as they long for the camaraderie of the yard.

"We're very bonded," Skinner said. "We know that there are five families that could be affected if one of us screws up."


Local 396 President and NV Energy foreman Shannon Skinner, center, says she and her longtime crew are sticklers for rules to protect each other.

MOST OF THE safety protocols developed by the city's building trades and signatory contractors have become mandates for construction sites statewide.

They include rules for essential PPE, monitoring workers' temperatures, near-constant disinfection of surfaces, proximity to wash stations, and designating staircases as "up" or "down" but not both. And vital in a city of skyscrapers, elevator safety.

"Vertical transportation has always been a challenge for the construction industry, just getting hundreds of workers up 60 floors," Erikson said.

The waits for a ride are longer now, as workers keep their distance in the exterior lifts known as Alimaks. They face outside, their backs to each other.

He knows some contractors will be more diligent than others but has faith in his members.

"Electricians are smarter than the average bear," Erikson said. "I think they've got brains enough to know they've got to protect themselves and their families."

He said nonunion employers pose the greatest threat of COVID-19 spreading on jobsites, knowing desperate low-wage workers won't report them for failing to enforce the new rules.

But the building trades will. "We're going to be paying attention to those sites," Erikson said. "There's got to be compliance up and down the line. If there's not, that could end up shutting down the whole construction industry again."

THE DAY that Sean McDonald first felt ill, New York City had logged just 137 cases of COVID-19. One week later, there were 5,683.

In between, McDonald had gone from a nuisance cough to a brutal one; he had headaches, fever and eye pain. He lost his sense of taste. Minor exertion left him huffing and puffing.

"Once or twice that week I was quarantining, my wife got called in to work at the hospital. I'd put a T-shirt over my face — we didn't have masks yet — and go downstairs and check on the kids. Just going up and down a flight of stairs, I'd be out of breath."

On March 20, McDonald pulled into a drive-in testing site where a doctor pushed long swabs up his nose and checked his oxygen with a finger monitor. Alarmed, he sent him inside for a chest X-ray. "You need to go to the hospital," the radiologist told him.

For hours he sat with a half-dozen others in an enclosed waiting room for likely COVID-19 patients. More filled the ER halls, where McDonald went in search of a nurse around 1 a.m.

"Where am I supposed to pass out?" he asked her with as much good humor as he could muster.

DOING THE GRIM work of electrifying a mobile morgue, Len Copicotto flashed on his time powering a hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

"We were doing something that was going to be helping a lot of people," he said. "Now we were pulling power from a hospital to something that symbolized how devastating this situation was going to get."

Yet even in his own circle, there were still COVID-19 doubters. That day he let loose on social media.

"I was feeling a sense of duty to reach out to friends and family who were still posting a lot of joke memes about the virus and were parroting a lot of cable news pundit shows that were saying it was the flu, it was a hoax, it was just alarmist paranoia," he said.

He'd been on the front lines as Queens became "the center of the center of the hottest part of the outbreak." For weeks, he threw his clothes in the wash and showered as soon as he got home, where he slept in a spare room to protect his wife.

Copicotto opted eventually to take one of the temporary furloughs offered, sheltering at a family cottage in Connecticut. He missed his union activities, including serving on the Local 3 election board. Its last meeting had been held in a nearly empty hall.

"I told people, 'This will be the only time you'll ever hear me say this in my entire career: please do not go to the union meeting.'"

WHILE SULLIVAN self-quarantined, she finished out the semester of the trade unionism classes she teaches at Empire State College in lower Manhattan.

Her students are Local 3 apprentices, who are required to earn an associate degree in labor studies. Sullivan asked what they'd liked better: the virtual classroom or the real one.

"Every one of them said they missed the in-class experience," she said. "I was surprised because it's so much easier to get on the computer in your shorts and T-shirt than it is to go all day to work and then get to class. But they missed the camaraderie of each other."

They'd learned the biggest lesson of all: the power of solidarity.

"I was so proud of them," she said. "They understood the importance of being with each other, how good solidarity feels, and how much you miss it when you don't have it."


A healthy Sean McDonald, shown with his family and the drum he plays in Local 3's pipe band, was hospitalized with COVID-19 for 11 days in March.

Seattle: The Challenge of Being First

Christine Reid didn't have a playbook when COVID-19 arrived in Seattle, the original epicenter of the virus in the United States.

A customer service agent and shop steward at Puget Sound Energy, she handled the service orders that dispatched crews to fix broken meters — crews made up of her Local 77 brothers and sisters.

"They have to go into people's houses," Reid said. "I thought, 'How do we do this safely?' We were the first, there wasn't any model to follow."

The nation's first recorded death from COVID-19 came at the end of February at a suburban Seattle nursing home. The virus raced through the facility with deadly speed, dominating media coverage the first half of March.

Reid's husband was working just a mile from the outbreak, and the couple live near the first high school that shut down when a student tested positive. "It was spreading like wildfire," she said. "People weren't comfortable going to the mailbox."

She praised PSE for swiftly canceling all non-emergency service orders, but that still meant risks for workers responding to suspected gas leaks.

"They used some very creative tools to keep people safe," she said. "They rotated shifts — they were able to go into two or three shift groups that would work for two or three weeks and then self-isolate for 14 days."

On the office side, she and her colleagues were relieved, if a little surprised, by how quickly PSE transitioned to telework. Within 48 hours of starting a pilot program with a few workers, they sent everyone home with their desktop computers.

"It was a policy we'd asked for that they'd completely pooh-poohed: 'How can people be trusted to work at home?'" Reid said. "Given the opportunity, we outperformed being at the office. Some people were commuting three hours a day. It's no wonder their productivity increased."

Local 77 operates statewide in Washington, where the virus has cost an estimated 1 million jobs. But 90% of members work for utilities and are considered essential.

"We are blessed," Reid said. "We've had no deaths among members and most are still gainfully employed."

A busy labor and community activist for many years, Reid recently moved to a new job as the local's director of membership development and political action.

Her union's response to the crisis makes her even prouder to be part of the Local 77 family.

"I'm thrilled by the way our leadership responded to protect members," she said. "And by the courage and strength that everyone showed, standing strong and holding it together in light of all the challenges."


As Seattle dealt with the nation's first COVID-19 outbreak, Local 77's Christine Reid worried about keeping frontline workers safe.

WESTCHESTER was making progress against COVID-19 as New York's cases skyrocketed. The world saw media reports of overwhelmed ERs, ICUs, and supply shortages that forced many nurses to reuse PPE that they'd normally discard between each patient.

On a labor call, Sanchez learned that a charity in Yonkers that ships protective gear to impoverished countries had inventory, but not enough hands. "Usually they have retired nurses who volunteer, but all those retired nurses got called back to work," he said.

That left PPE piling up in the Afya Foundation's warehouse while New York and other U.S. hotspots were in dire need.

Sanchez delivered Local 3 volunteers to sort, count and pack gowns, surgical masks, gloves, booties and more. "We shipped out thousands of pieces of PPE to local hospitals," he said.

AFTER TWO DAYS in a private room, McDonald was moved to the COVID ward when it was confirmed he'd tested positive. He was there nine days. A month later, he was working the night shift on a fast-tracked project adding a floor to a local hospital.

The virus also struck his sister and their father, a retired Local 3 journeyman. All of them, now negative, have donated blood plasma to help other patients recover.

They don't know who infected whom, or if they contracted the virus separately. "Taking the train, riding the subway, going to the deli, eating lunch outside with the guys. I could have gotten it anywhere," McDonald said.

THE REPERCUSSIONS of COVID-19 will be felt for years, if not decades, to come. Some $63 billion worth of construction work may already be impacted in New York, Erikson said. Major subway and airport projects, among others, are up in the air.

While safety is paramount, he sees the workplace debate around COVID-19 entering uneasy territory. "They're talking about having workers download apps onto their personal phones for tracking," he said. "We're concerned about that. There's no reason an employer should have the ability to track you when you're not at work. It's bad enough on a worksite."

It's one of Erikson's many worries in an unchartered era.

"We're still in a time when this whole thing is evolving," he said. "Where is it going to go? Where are we going to end up? We don't know what the post-COVID world is going to look like.