Rene Mata is a San Diego Local 465 gas service technician, and for most of his 16-year career, the biggest threats on the job were gas leaks. Explosions are uncommon but perilous, and leaks must be addressed quickly.
"We prepare, and we wear personal protective equipment, but we have a responsibility to work the orders," Mata said.
In the beginning of March, Mata was called to repair a leaking appliance, a service San Diego Gas and Electric provides to its customers.
But the gas leak wasn't the biggest danger Mata faced on this call. The homeowner was a sick man. All the symptoms pointed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that came roaring out of China in the new year and circled the globe.
While the rest of the world was working from home or physically distancing, Mata was putting on an entirely new kind of PPE and preparing to go where everyone is told to stay away.
"Part of the job is to enter some hazardous situations," he said.
Mata is one of tens of thousands of IBEW members who have been called to keep North America functioning as all around them the familiar is shut down.
Across North America, hundreds of millions of stores, restaurants and offices closed, and the economy was stripped down to its essentials. At the foundation were the men and women of the IBEW.
In Ontario, hundreds of health care workers kept hospitals running. Across the continent, wiremen worked through the night, night after night, to build dozens of temporary hospital facilities and accelerate completion of yearslong hospital expansion projects. In Indiana and Nevada, our members retooled and rewired factories to produce ventilators. Transmission and distribution system operators, the air traffic controllers of the power grid, said goodbye to their families for weeks at a time and bunked down in RVs stationed in office parking lots.
These are just a few of the ways that these jobs, so often hidden or taken for granted, became the bright lights as the economy went dark in a global effort to slow the spread, flatten the curve and save lives.
Healing the Sick
For every story about the service rendered by an IBEW member on the job, there rises another about the role we play in our community. Untold masks have been sewn and given away; tens of thousands of meals delivered to medical workers. New Jersey and Massachusetts locals donated more than 100,000 pieces of PPE; in Gulfport, Miss., the local handed out locally made hand sanitizer in the only container they could find — red Solo cups.
"It is too soon to tell the whole story of the brotherhood's response to the 2020 pandemic. We are still in the beginning stages," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But we have done right by our communities, our brothers and sisters in the IBEW and our nations. We are living up to the high standards set by our founders and the IBEW responses during the World Wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and the recession of 2008."
Every person has a role to play in stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, but only a few of us go into the heart of the struggle: the health facilities that are working beyond capacity to bring back those laid low by COVID-19.
Local 636 members Sharon Holland and Jen Rocheleau are Unit Clerks in the Windsor Regional Hospital's intensive care unit.
Nearly 950 of the 4,000 members of Toronto Local 636 work in health care. They aren't the doctors and nurses at the hospital; they are the people who keep the hospitals and in-patient centers across Ontario running. They are aides, clerks and the people who help you navigate the maze of the health care system. They are among the first people incoming patients meet, including those suffering from the COVID-19 virus.
Nearly 400 of them aid in-home patients across the province suffering from physical disabilities and acquired brain injuries. The community they serve is often poor; working conditions are, at times, unsanitary.
"They go to work every day with the fear of getting the virus and bringing it home to their families," said Business Manager Domenic Murdaca. "But they know they have to keep the clerical and critical needs of hospitals and the places where they work running. We're really proud of them."
As the crisis grew, Murdaca, like business managers across North America, faced the deep challenge of the early days of the pandemic: not enough protective equipment or enough reliable information about how the virus spread and how to protect yourself.
After a slow start, he said employers are doing all they can to provide PPE and keep his members safe. But long hours working in difficult circumstances require constant vigilance on the part of each worker to stay safe and protect themselves and patients.
In early March, members of Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21 joined the legion of health care workers rushing to save lives. They were the nurses, nurses' assistants, kitchen staff, housekeeping, janitorial, social services and laundry staff at the Heddington Oaks Nursing Home, owned and operated by Peoria County. To protect their vulnerable residents, the county locked down the nursing home, placing additional pressures on the staff.
"The workload has been overwhelming, yet they continue on," said Business Manager Paul Wright.
The TCF Center in Detroit was one of many convention centers around the U.S. and Canada converted to field hospitals by IBEW members.
By now, everyone understands the phrase "flatten the curve" means slowing the infection rate so the health care system isn't overwhelmed.
But the flip side of flattening the curve is increasing capacity. If hospitals have more ventilators, more rooms, more space, the curve can rise without more people dying.
Piedmont Atlanta Hospital north of downtown was scheduled to open a 13-floor patient tower Aug.1.
Hospital administrators wanted it opened early. So, they asked Atlanta Local 613 and one of its largest signatory contractors, Inglett and Stubbs, if they could get it done faster and still keep people safe. The answer was "yes."
"We had 100 people working around the clock," said Business Manager Kenny Mullins. "We turned that four months into three and a half weeks."
Local 613 also had hundreds of members working across the state building emergency COVID-19 tents, Mullins said — more than 30 total, each with the capacity to hold and treat up to 100 patients.
They were far from alone. Across North America, IBEW members were pressed into service to massively expand patient capacity. They built temporary hospitals, morgues and testing centers in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Long Island, Albuquerque, in a Reno parking garage, at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and in many other places.
Members of Hamilton, Ontario, Local 105 built Joseph Brant Hospital's 87-bed temporary facility in only eight days, working around the clock. The local then donated $10 an hour for every hour worked, more than $15,000, to the hospital for critical COVID-19 supplies.
"It wasn't a big job, only about a dozen members, but they needed it now and we delivered," said Local 105 Business Manager Lorne Newick.
Vacant convention centers were transformed into field hospitals by IBEW members alongside the Army Corps of Engineers in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington and more.
Detroit Local 58 remade the TCF Center into a temporary hospital, and members were called to the GM Tech Center Campus in Warren, Mich., to equip a revamped building with a fleet of 3D printers that will produce critical ventilator components and churn out the plastic "Ys" and "Ts" that can double and triple the capacity of ventilators already in the field.
Local 58 also installed two production lines in the shuttered Warren Transmission Plant to make N95 respirators, the kind medical workers need to stay safe. The facility was closed, but it had a "clean room" facility that was ideal for mask production.
While patients rely on hospital staff to care for them, hospital staff rely on the array of near miraculous medical devices to help them diagnose and treat those patients. The IBEW is there too.
About 40 members of Milwaukee Local 663 maintain the assembly lines and facilities at GE Healthcare factories in Milwaukee and Waukesha, Wis., that make critical components for the CT scanners medical staff rely on to check lung capacity and monitor the spread of infection.
The factories are working three shifts, 24/7, said Business Manager Jason Olson, who works the second shift with eight other electricians.
"We're running at max capacity. When these machines break, they need the parts immediately," he said. "I think our members understand how important the work we're doing is."
Once the CT scanners are in the hospitals, in some of the hardest hit parts of the U.S., they remain under the care of the IBEW.
Imaging and diagnostic technicians from Boston Local 2222, New York Local 3 and Seattle Local 48 service MRI, CT, nuclear imaging/PET scanners, X-ray, lab equipment and ultrasound machines in medical facilities across New England, New York and the Pacific Northwest for Siemens Healthineers.
"The CT scanner at a hospital is like the third arm of the emergency room," said service engineer and Local 2222 steward Jack Kent. "Usually, when a hospital has more than one, they've got one for the ER that's almost entirely used by COVID patients right now and one CT scanner for the rest of the hospital."
Local 2222 Business Manager and International Executive Council member Myles Calvey said machine calibration — making sure the machines are accurate and delivering the right results — is one of their biggest and most important jobs, especially given the need for quick and accurate COVID-19 testing and processing.
But the greatest challenge for many isn't the work, it's the waiting. ERs were always scoured and disinfected after every procedure, but now the cleaning staff sets up an ultraviolet strobe light to destroy any airborne virus. It takes longer, sometimes much longer and the maintenance techs — masked up and in varying degrees of goggles, lab coats and face shields — wait. And they watch, and what they see is often heartbreaking.
"These members are spending a lot of time in high-risk areas, which is worrying and then it is hard seeing all the COVID patients wheeled by," Calvey said. "It's a difficult job being done under very difficult circumstances."
It has been estimated that the quarantine knocked nearly one-third of the economy offline. The impact has been cataclysmic; a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund said it was possibly the most dramatic economic contraction since the Black Death nearly 700 years ago.
And yet, the lights must stay on and the telecommunications network must stay up, because the rest of the world hasn't stopped; it has just moved to the hundreds of millions of kitchen table schoolhouses and living room workstations.
There too, IBEW members are front and center. And, there too, their jobs are often transformed.
By early May, dozens of IBEW utility members were sequestered at their work sites to protect critical power infrastructure — and the people who run it — in California, New York, British Columbia and Nebraska. By the time transmission system operators from San Diego Local 465 began living and working on San Diego Gas & Electric property in early April, the IBEW had signed agreements with dozens of utility companies across the U.S. and Canada, setting the terms for housing grid operators and generation workers onsite.
New York control center operators — air traffic controllers for electrons instead of airplanes — from Syracuse Local 97, Johnson City Local 10, Niagara Falls Local 2104 and Massena Local 2032 were working shifts up to four weeks long, said Third District International Representative Julie Cosenza.
The 14-day shift of San Diego Local 465 members Blain Adams-Denner, Christopher Sullivan and Al Lagunero began April 6. They alternated 12-hour shifts before being replaced by another three-person crew on April 20.
All three volunteered, said Business Manager Nate Fairman, a difficult decision for each of them. But Lagunero explained his decision to volunteer simply.
"I feel this is my best contribution to my community," he said.
Some of the first generation workers to be quarantined were members of Grand Island, Neb., Local 1597. Most cases of COVID-19 have been on the coasts, in densely populated urban areas. But one of the worst hit parts of the country is Hall County, Neb., where the disease tore through the JBS meat packing plant there.
It was so worrying that the city-owned utility approached Local 1597 Business Manager Chad Holmes with a proposal to activate the pandemic action plan they had put in place a decade earlier after SARS and Ebola scares.
Two shifts — one for the night, one for the day — of two workers each worked for five days, sleeping in makeshift housing on site. While one group worked, a second sequestered for five days. When the second group rotated in, a third went into sequestration and the first quarantined at home.
After power, a connection to the internet is often the essential utility for most North Americans. It is the tether between their isolated homes and the world of work, school and basic human connection. That system, too, was often built and maintained by IBEW members.
"Keeping people connected is not a luxury now," said Broadcasting and Telecommunications Department Director Robert Prunn.
"The people our telecom members are dealing with are trying to save their jobs in a very frightening recession, educate their kids, connect with distant loved ones and sometimes, just relax with a movie. And they are often feeling the pressure of all of that when they get on the line with our members."
For many, the voice they hear when the connection goes dark is one of the 550 members of Boise, Idaho, Local 291 at an AT&T-owned call center.
Many of them faced the same challenges as the people they were helping. The telecommunications goliath had to empty out the call center within days.
Business Manager Mark Zaleski said that only about 120 continue to come to the office, spread apart and now at assigned workstations. The rest are working from home, talking with other people in their homes, working through the new reality we all face.
"I've got to take my hat off to AT&T for working swiftly to get 400 people at home on short notice," Zaleski said. "I couldn't be prouder of how our members have adapted to help our customers.
Sometimes, problems can't be solved over the phone and technicians have to be dispatched.
Prunn said there have been some work rule changes. With rare exceptions for emergencies involving customers with medical needs, for example, Verizon has barred technicians from going into homes, and technicians rely on outdoor and temporary fixes to keep customers connected.
In Canada technicians at Rogers Communications, members of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Local 1615, were going into homes — at their discretion — after customers answered a series of questions about recent travel or contact with infected persons.
But then three times it was revealed the customers lied, said the local's labor relations assistant, Jenelle Harvey. One told the company they hadn't traveled but then answered a phone call while the technician was there and said they had just come back from Florida three days before. So, the company decided the safety risk was too great and that they wouldn't go into houses at all.
"At first, there was simply too much pressure placed on technicians by customers and the company to ensure service and installation needs were met, while technicians were already dealing with some irate customers," Harvey said.
But for some members, working in the homes of others has been unavoidable.
Newark, N.J., Local 1158 member Fred Shellhammer is one of nearly 300 union appliance repair technicians for GE/Haier. He has been working out of Philadelphia for more than 30 years repairing microwaves in suburban mansions, washing machines in city center condos and refrigerators on farms in the countryside.
With most of the country in some form of lockdown, all those appliances are the thin thread of connection to civilized life.
Shellhammer is still working during the pandemic, focusing on the most critical repairs.
"We are doing it as safely as possible," he said. "There are always more questions: how should I lay on the floor? What did I touch? There a lot of unknowns. Some people get changed in their backyard and wash their clothes every night. Some people have spouses that are more susceptible. There are precautions we take off the job."
Manufacturing Director Randy Middleton described it more bluntly.
"Wipe the area down, fix it, and leave," he said. "In every email, I say there are no trophies for working unsafe."
Still more members have a sworn duty to put themselves between the public and potential harm, and these days, danger lies in nearly every interaction, even those that once seemed so benign.
Steve Erceg is a steward for the Linn Co. Sheriff's Department sergeants, who joined Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Local 204 in 2015. The unit of around 20 sergeants has taken extra precautions, but the job must be done and can't be done from home.
"We've always dealt with the potential for danger on the job," he said. "Our top priority is always coming home at the end of the day, and this is no different."
Local 204 also has members working in the Linn County jail and another 10 deputies in the Cedar Co. Sheriff's Department, where Austin Sorgenfrey is a deputy and steward.
"We often don't have a choice of going into homes, and they're not always comfortable situations, but we're all used to wearing gloves and using sanitizer and disinfectant during normal times," Sorgenfrey said. "Right now, we're concerned for our families, that we could get this disease on the job and bring it home and spread it to them, but we have jobs to do."
For 911 emergency center workers in Lake County, Ind., keeping up has been grueling, but they know the work is important. As people got sick or stayed home to protect vulnerable family members, shifts grew and grew. On some days Local 21 steward Stephanie Sandilla said dispatchers worked 16-hour shifts to keep their community safe.
Not everything is shut down. Food and goods still have to move. The people who still work still need to get there. The IBEW is there, too.
The members of Bellevue, Ohio, Local 2172 work on Norfolk Southern's diesel engines.
"If it wasn't for us, the things people need might not get to where they're needed. We carry everything, from band-aids and cotton balls to lumber for construction to food and fuel," said Local 2172 President and local Chairman (business manager) Dave Frost.
The IBEW also represents nearly 8,000 passenger and commuter rail members. Transit ridership is down by almost 90% compared with the same time last year, said Railroad Director Al Russo.
"But that means the people who are still riding are often in crucial positions and very vulnerable," Russo said. "In other words, our members and the people they serve are in the same boat."
Russo said they have put new procedures to keep everyone safe. System Council 7 workers, for example, implemented new cleaning procedures in place, including more frequent sanitizing of car air filters to prevent the coronavirus from circulating in cars' HVAC systems.
"Our members know they were considered 'essential employees' from the moment they were hired," Russo said.
Keeping Us Informed
Washington Local 1200 member Stuart Ammerman shows off his PPE in the White House briefing room, where he works for CBS News.
As the world has shrunk for most people, they are relying in ever greater numbers on journalists to bring the world to them. But TV journalists and producers are facing the same struggle to do their jobs safely and professionally.
When CBS shut down its New York broadcast facility after two people who'd been inside were diagnosed with the virus, Washington Local 1200 members were called on to perform a monumental task: transferring full production for the flagship CBS Evening News program to Washington.
Under normal circumstances, a move like that would take weeks or months, said Business Manager Geoff Turner, but it was done in just three and a half hours on March 11.
"It's a herculean lift, not only to get signals pointed in the right direction in complex broadcast facilities, but to recreate that comfort so the producers feel like they have everything they need and the anchors can see and hear everything correctly," said Turner, a former CBS sound mixer.
Hollywood, Calif., Local 45 faced many of the same challenges, said Business Manager Elaine Ocasio, with KCAL-TV and KCBS members producing an extra four hours of daily local news for the New York affiliate in addition to the 10 hours they already produce at their Studio City location.
"We were basically rewriting our disaster recovery procedures on the fly," said Local 45 member Fernando Burruss, a technical operations supervisor at KCAL-TV and KCBS. "We were coming up with new procedures and different ways of doing things at a moment's notice. We had to do this right here, right now, and basically we were able with help from our brothers and sisters at WCBS to keep them on the air."
Local 45 members at the CBS broadcast facility at TV City in LA, which has always been set up as a backup to the New York broadcast center, also stepped in to take over network transmissions until New York was able to reopen.
As April turned to May, more than a million people were infected with the coronavirus and thousands were still dying every day of COVID-19. Across North America, unemployment statistics shattered every record that had come before.
Some states in the U.S. were opening businesses, often in places with the worst worker protections and rarely with plans to keep them safe. Plans have been floated by Senate Republicans and the White House to give legal immunity to companies who fail to protect their workers.
But most of North America remained under some kind of stay-at-home order, and worries were high about a potential deep recession and a second wave of outbreaks in the fall or sooner.
For more than a century, IBEW members have been the base on which the economy is built. We still are.
We guide frightened people to the care they need. We build the hospitals and maintain the equipment inside. We are the ones who keep the power on and the internet lifeline up and running. We get the crucial workers to their jobs and back, safe and sound. We keep your refrigerators running and your ovens hot. We protect and serve our communities.
When our chapter in the IBEW's history is written, the beginning will say that our nations called on us to save lives, keep us warm, keep us safe, keep us working. And it will say that the men and women of the IBEW answered that call.