The signs Erin Sullivan as she crossed the Hudson River en route to renovation work at a high-rise law firm near Rockefeller Center.
Erin Sullivan with her grandson, using an app she developed while sheltering in place to help him communicate. A labor studies instructor at Empire State College in lower Manhattan, Sullivan previously built a labor history app for her students, Local 3 apprentices.
“I’d had a cough and a headache for several days and I kept seeing these blinking signs on the Tappen Zee Bridge: ‘Stay at Home, Stay at Home’” said Sullivan, a journeyman wireworker and Local 3 activist.
“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 turned back toward Rockland County north of the city. Four days later, cases had tripled and her jobsite shut down.
As she self-quarantined, her wife continued to work outside the home with developmentally disabled clients, several of whom tested positive for Covid-19.
The couple, who have both tested negative, lived apart in their house for weeks. Missing the grandbabies they normally watch on weekends was especially agonizing. Sullivan filled some of the void by developing an app for the 19-month-old, recently diagnosed with autism. “It’s like a communications board, so he can say what he wants to eat, what movie he wants to watch, he can start making decisions,” she said.
Sullivan’s many hats within Local 3 and the greater New York labor movement also kept her busy. Among them, she directs the local’s mentoring program, represents the Third District on the International Women’s Committee and teaches principles of trade unionism at Empire State College in lower Manhattan.
Her students — Local 3 apprentices who are required to earn an associate degree in labor studies — finished the semester online. 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,” Sullivan 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.”