IBEW members and their families across the United States and Canada are coping with the health, stress and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The stories below are a snapshot of the early crisis for members in four states. They ran in the July issue of The Electrical Worker with a cover story on the challenges New York City members faced this spring as their home became the global center of the pandemic.
‘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 work site, it came 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.”
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.”
Bay Area Transit Workers: ‘It’s A Lot to Manage All at Once’
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.”
In 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 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 percent 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.”