Episode 1 - COVID-19 Update Business Manager Roundtable

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Union Up's Rut Walker hosts a roundtable discussion from International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local business managers Kenny Mullins from IBEW 613 in Atlanta, Lou Antonellis from IBEW 103 in Dorchester/Boston, and Bill Blackman from IBEW 136 in Birmingham, AL. We discuss the impact of coronavirus on the local construction economy, concerns over layoffs, latest news from their jurisdictions, and steps they are taking to keep their members safe and informed. (Recorded March 16, 2020)

Lou Excerpt: Last three years we've been really full employment. Things had been chugging along and the economy has been great. And you know this, I've never seen anything in our 30 years that I've been in a local, have I ever seen anything come to a screeching halt like this has.

Opening: You're listening to the Union Up podcast, a podcast with conversations on issues facing business managers and local trade unions across the country.

Rut: Welcome to the Union Up podcast. Joining me today are three prominent leaders from local unions with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Kenny Mullins, business manager, IBEW Local 613 in Atlanta, Lou Antonellis, business manager, IBW Local 103 in Dorchester in the Boston area and Bill Blackman, business manager, IBEW Local 136 out of Birmingham. And I wanted to get you guys on to talk about what everybody's talking about essentially, which is COVID-19 and how it's affected your market and how it's affected your members. And we're coming off the heels of the latest press conference and the president said that he's putting in this 15 days to stop the spread plan. And he said he was not doing any mandatory quarantining because each market is different. What's going on specifically in your market and how are your members feeling about this situation? I'll start with Lou.

Lou: Yeah, thanks. First of all, I think my, you know, obviously the health and the safety of our members is premiere, is paramount, and it's the most important thing for us. And as of right now, we don't know of anybody, any members of the IBW up here in Boston that have contracted the Corona virus that we, that we know of anyway. So that's a good thing so far. But just today a news conference around two o'clock this afternoon, Mayor Walsh, and now instead, he's shutting down the city of Boston including all construction sites within the city. So that alone given the recent building boom that has been going on in Boston, that's going to be devastating for us. We could potentially be looking at a thousand additional members out of work just from that alone. So we're very nervous and watching very closely and as this thing unfolds this is right now it's for two weeks, but you know, you never know, you know, this thing's growing legs of its own every minute and it's changing and updating every single day. So, right now it's not good news for our folks up here in Boston. I'm sure it's similar in other cities in the country.

Rut: Kenny, is that rolling downhill to you or what have you heard in Atlanta?

Kenny: Here in Atlanta, we're not seeing the amount of job shutdown on the scale that Boston and 103's experiencing. I have had three jobs down as of today. One had 12 guys on it, one of them had eight guys on it and one of them had four guys on it. The guy with the job, with the four guys on it was simply two service trucks two journeyman wireman and two apprentices and they were doing some service work and the customer shut their facility down. The other jobs had no IBW member on those jobs here in Atlanta that had symptoms. It was the customer shutting them down. But I expect to see more. And being calm through this whole process and being able to react and make sure our members are taken care of is what we're trying to do as leaders. I expect probably Friday of this week to see a lot more jobs to come in and shut down. I hope not, but it's just inevitable thing to cut down the spread that that's what's going to happen.

Rut: Bill, it looks like from the press that Alabama and West Virginia I think were the last two States in the union that had a case. Has it been that big of an effect in Birmingham?

Bill: Well, we're trailing behind Lou and Kenny as far as what is going on, but believe me, we're keeping an eye on what they're doing and trying to take care of our members here and staff and family, protect them the best that we can as well from lessons learned by our brothers there. Our first confirmed case was this weekend here in Alabama. So we've really not seen an effect at this point, but there is plenty of discussion going on in just about every job site.

Rut: What are your members, what sort of feedback are they getting? I know there must be some anxious members among the group. Are you getting feedback on social media or through email or calls or whatever? What sort of things, what sort of questions are they asking you?

Bill: Asking questions like what do we do if this job is shut down? Questions like, will this be considered a furlough? I'm trying to tell everybody that this is a health and safety issue and not a furlough type issue. But if you're not able to work and then definitely you're eligible for your unemployment benefits and things like that. And those are the kinds of questions that we're getting.

Rut: Lou, what about your market?

Lou: Yeah, we're kind of taking the same approach that it's a public health emergency. It's a crisis shut down in the city of Boston. Work is suspended. So as soon as work is open and the job sites are open, we're going to be sending those particular members right back to the jobs that they were working on prior to the shutdown. We've made some changes. We've taken some steps to ensure the wellbeing of our members. A couple of media changes that we made were to our local 103 health benefit plan because we want to make sure that members can retain their healthcare eligibility during the crisis. We did close down our Boston office and our satellite office indefinitely and we canceled referral indefinitely, but we're trying to make other conveniences by phone and online so members can still conduct local 103 business. And we don't completely shut them out. They can still do what they need to do, but they won't have to come in person and be subject to an infection of the office staff or themselves to try to keep everybody at an arm's length away at best Keeping the phone lines open a little bit later to try to help answer questions and answer concerns our members have. And we've also been working with the governor and the state legislature to waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance for the folks that are getting laid off due to the now workplace disruptions of the COVID virus. So what we're trying to keep everybody updated, but there's a lot to update constantly. It's really a lot of information coming at us rather quickly and changing by the moment. So we're trying to do our best to be on, to keep our members informed and and just keep up with the pace of this whole thing.

Rut: What's going on in Atlanta that's similar to what Lou was talking about?

Kenny: There's a lot of questions. There's two types of people, two types of points of view in our construction market about this. You have the guys that say that's not a big deal, it's no worse than the flu, they're not buying into the bullshit. And then you have the other guys that are trying to take precautions and heading these warnings. So we're getting a bunch of questions and most of the questions revolve back to, is there going to be any compensation? What if my project gets shut down? What if we don't have any hands wash stations on the job? What can we do about this? Those are the kinds of questions coming in and our contractors in Atlanta and us here at the local are working diligently to handle these issues as they come in. But the main question is, if we're sent home, what's the compensation going to be? Are we going to get paid or we're not going to get paid? The international office and NECA have come up with an agreement, a disaster agreement that states if somebody is affected they will be furloughed. And then as soon as they get a clean bill of health, they can go back to that contractor to the same job site and not have to go through a full referral procedure.

Rut: What's coming out of the department of labor right now? Is there anything being done from their perspective on making it easier, faster to draw unemployment in Birmingham, Bill?

Bill: No, nothing at that point, like I said earlier we just had our first confirmed case this week this past weekend and we have not gone as far as Massachusetts and Georgia. There is a one week, first week waiting period like Lou mentioned while ago here in Alabama as well. And we'd love to be able to say I could call some of our friends in Montgomery and get that waived. And believe me, we're trying through the AFL as well as our personal contacts down there. But so far it hasn't happened.

Rut: For the guys on the job site that are still working, what effects has the anxiety around social distancing had on your members? Have you heard any feedback from them? I'm thinking about it from... if I've got something on my mind that's really pressing down on me, I might not be focused on what's right in front of me. And it seems like to me that would raise the safety hazard a little bit. Have you got any feedback like that?

Bill: I haven't, no. It's a good point that you bring up. Any distraction can be a safety hazard, especially on a big industrial construction site. And that's what we have the most of here in the Birmingham area is industrial sites.

Rut: Well, the reason why I was thinking about it was, I was reading an article on Construction Dive and they were talking about the six ways that Corona virus outbreak will affect construction. And they did some polling among construction workers and contractors. And among the top six things, the first one, and it was way more pronounced than any other, is anxiety among the workers is the number one thing that affects the construction industry. And that's why I was asking that question. Kenny, have you gotten any feedback like that from your members, maybe on social media perhaps?

Kenny: Yeah, of course, it's human nature. Anytime that we're dealing with something unusual, like the whole country is dealing with, there's going to be some anxiety and some anxiousness that's on these jobs and mainly is they don't want to carry it home to their family, to their kids, and to their wives. So yeah, there's a little bit anxiety out there, but as a whole, we're using some good common sense down here and, trying to keep your hands wash and do everything we can to prevent, and like we've all discussed, we'll try to tell our guys and the message we're kind of pushing, we don't know if it's going to be four weeks, four months, but we do know it is not going to be forever. And so we're just trying to come through this together and stay unified and attack the situation that changes every hour the best we can.

Rut: Well, I wanted to ask Lou an extension of that question because you guys seem to be further down the road with this, having all the sites being shut down. If someone goes back to work, let's say it's 14 days, people going back to work. If somebody is on the site and their wife has coronavirus, as I understand, they have to be quarantined too, is that correct? I mean, so how do you compensate for that? There's a guy where it's not affecting him but he can't go to the job site because somebody in his family is affected?

Lou: Yeah. So we haven't had that happen yet, but it's definitely a concern on people's minds. I mean, somebody sneezes on a job site or in the grocery store and everybody around them kind of gets a lot of anxiety over this. We're trying to ask our members to follow the recommendations of the CDC and certainly of OSHA for workplace safety. Certainly if you've traveled to areas with high infection rate or if someone in your family or someone that you've been in contact with has been diagnosed. We're certainly asking our members to stay at home self-quarantine, if they have any signs of infection, whether it be a fever or upper respiratory cough or infection and, asking them to use common sense, on the job site for sure. And now a lot of jobs have to shut down. So I think that's kind of been just a blanket... Some of the things we make, some of the changes or the recommendations we're making on one day getting changed the next day as this thing kind of unfolds it's hard to keep up with the changes in the news cycle and certainly the changes in the infection rate of this of this virus. So we're just trying to keep up and keep our members well informed as possible on everything. Like I said from the CDC and OSHA right down to their own personal job sites.

Rut: And one of the things personally, one of the things that bums me out the most is that there's no escaping it because there's no sports to take your mind off. I know Boston is such a huge sports market. Has there been any new talk up there about the sports teams shutting down all the league shutting, this has happened everywhere. But is there any talk from your members about that?

Lou: Yeah, we're in a deep depression up him in that way. Everybody is disappointed. We've got a couple of partnerships with local sports teams and usually the union meetings we give out sets of tickets to our members as part of those packages. And, now that none of the sports are canceled or postpone indefinitely, it's definitely a bummer.

Bill: I made a suggestion to our pensions investment committee that with all the springtime sports being canceled and everybody being self-quarantined at home for two weeks maybe we need to invest heavily in the diaper companies because nine months from now, we'll be back on top.

Rut: If anybody wants to get around anybody these days. I'm kind of anxious to get around to anybody, including my family these days, such a weird feeling.

Lou: Yeah.

Rut: So the president was talking about, and Kenny, you touched on this a little bit but Lou, I wanted to ask your opinion. The administration put in some small business measures in place for paycheck protection for businesses that have less than 500 employees. Do you have mostly large contractors up there are, or how are they, how are you handling that? That news?

Lou: I think some down the road stuff. That's not immediate. Any of that stuff's gonna immediately affect any of our guys. We have a couple of contractors that that would affect over 500 employees. Most of our contractors are under 500 employees, but, you know, we're just trying to get through today and onto tomorrow. Never mind some of the dysfunction of Washington and some of the false promises that we get from the administration. Those are... he says one thing and does another thing. So we don't rely too much on what's coming out of Washington these days. But, you know, just some of the things we've been having conversations. I mean, all weekend long, I was having conversations with my with our NECA partners and the director of NECA here Boston about ways that we can keep jobs open. And some of those things we came up with were possibly having flexible start times. We're working on a 40 story building, and the governor made a blanket statement, there'd be no social gatherings of 25 people or more, but there are 50 lineman or 50 electricians on the job, how does that work? Well, they're working on 50 different floors, so it's not like everybody's congregated in a subway car. So everybody's kind of spread out. But everybody rides the elevator up to whatever floor they're working on and you get packed like sardines in an elevator. So we proposed a flexible start times to kind of keep people from interacting too much and congregating, whether it be in a break room or on an elevator or anything like that. We've also talked about opening the shifts up, waving the shift differential for a period of time. So they could split the crew up and have them work separate hours of the day so they're not, again, not interacting personally and trying to respect the space in between, make people feel comfortable being around other people. So those are some of the things that we've come up. But again, it's been kind of fun not because as we talked about it all weekend and then today the mayor canceled all work in the city. So that's often not, but there's some of the stuff we're trying to be creative and work with NECA, work with our contractors to try to mitigate as much as these job shutdowns as possible.

Rut: Have you had any discussions with your contractors around, are they concerned about shortage of materials since all the travel and everything's been cut down from other parts of the world? Are they concerned about shortage of material?

Lou: Yeah, I think they're already seeing shortages because China obviously they get a lot of that stuff from China and China was going through these shutdowns about a month or so ago. So I think they're starting to feel a little bit of a lag, certainly in lighting fixtures. They told me specifically lighting fixtures that they see and delays on lighting packages that are coming overseas. Definitely starting to feel that now we'll see what happens when we go back to work.

Rut: Have you guys, Bill and Kenny, have you guys felt that as well when you talk to your contractors?

Bill: I was talking with one of our guys that's running a job downtown earlier today and more than material, he was mentioning information. They've got some Italian equipment and they were having trouble getting information, engineering decisions that they were needing coming from there.

Rut: Kenny, what about you?

Kenny: Here in Atlanta from our partners and our contractors, that hasn't been made aware to me that Hey man, we're having issues with getting material, but it's gotta be, I'm sure it is for some of our smaller contractors. The larger contractors and mid-size, we do a lot of prefab here so a lot of their stuff is ordered in bulk and they have these prefab shops. But no, I haven't officially heard from my contractors that they're having issue with materials, but you almost got to think that they gotta have some issues getting materials, the smaller contractors. But I guess that answered your question is no, I haven't heard it, but we know about its out there.

Rut: How are you staying in contact with your members and addressing, there's a lot of, like you said earlier, there's a lot of wild rumors out there and things. How do you communicate with them and give them as salient information as you can possibly give them?

Kenny: Social media is the jewel. That's a good way that we're getting in touch with our members. Of course, blast email, group text messages, and mailers, I know that seems odd, but we are mailing postcards and update cards in the mail as well to just to try to get our members informed of what's going on and keeping them in the know. But I would say our biggest tool right now is social media.

Rut: Bill, what about yourself?

Bill: Yeah, we use a lot of social media to get the word out. We send things out to the job sites. We haven't been shut down to this point. We send material out to the job sites, to our stewards to distribute and create discussions in the break room and stuff like that.

Rut: Lou, how about yourself? You're very active on social media. In fact, I watched your last business manager minute and you mentioned that IBEW has been there in the prosperous times and the challenging times and I'm guessing, I know where this falls, huh?

Lou: This is definitely challenging times. The last three years have been really a full employment things had been chugging along and the economy has been great. And I've never seen anything in our, in the 30 years that I've been in the local, have I ever seen anything come to a screeching halt like this has, this is uncharted territory. And from fantastic to crisis mode literally overnight and, we're adjusting as best we can and it's out of our control, this thing and it's out of everybody's control. But I noticed that my members are very very appreciative with our communication and just communicating with them any updates, whether it be about the virus, about job sites, about layoffs and whatever it is, we're communicating with them. And I think they're very appreciative to be kept in the loop. And social media has played a huge huge part in that. Getting the word out and instantaneously you send one tweet or you make one post and you can touch thousands of members in almost an instant. So they understand that this is out of all of our control, but I think they really do appreciate the magnitude of us just sharing information with them consistently so.

Rut: I know you guys have been working around the clock updating and talking to contractors, talking to politicians, talking to your members. And I know that your memberships really appreciate that and I appreciate you guys spending time with me to talk about this. Is there anything that you would want your members to know that they don't already know?

Lou: If they don't know, just wait five minutes because it'll change and we'll be communicating that with them. But we definitely want them to know that we're here for them and that we will, you know, we're doing everything we can to get them the most up to date information about their jobs. I mean, let's face it, it's their livelihood. Their families rely on their jobs and their incomes and we want to protect that any way we can and we just want them to know that. So thank you for having me on.

Rut: I appreciate it. Gentlemen, Kenny. Bill, what would that be for you? What would you want your members to know that they don't already know?

Bill: I would hope they already know that we're in their corner and ready to support them any way we can. I like for them to know that we are actively trying to be as proactive and as future looking as possible with this. There are some changes, there are practices that are being put in place that we've never seen before and I would appreciate their patience. And for the last, almost three years now that I've been the business manager down here, I appreciated their support and hope they know that they have my support.

Rut: Are you able to have union meetings Bill still? I mean, have they shut that down as well?

Bill: We just held a telephone pole with our executive board. We have our next meeting was scheduled for this Thursday, the 19th we had a telephone pole with our executive board today to cancel that meeting. There are some rumors floating around that the city is going to come out with a, like Lou mentioned while ago, a 25 people or less in one building. So we decided to be proactive and go ahead and take care of that. The executive board plans to do a telephone teleconference meeting for this month to take care of any pressing business.

Kenny: I would want them to know that we are working on a compensation package, the local union and our contractors. We're trying to make some changes on our trust documents for a compensation of pay when the jobs do get shut down. I would like for them to know that that is being worked on. We're waiting on the bill to come out and see if it gets through Senate the 6201 Corona virus bill. But while that's coming out, we are making changes on our short term disability. We're having to change some language to change the eligibility, what you need to do to get it. So when our members do get affected and are off the job or the job is shut down, we're trying to offer them some avenues to where they can have some compensation to make up for not being at work.

Rut: What is the most effective way for a member to communicate with the hall at this point?

Kenny: Always we would suggest call us by phone. Always you can email, text, anything digital is the best way right now because as civilians, you know, we gotta do our part and help cut on the spread of this virus and the responsible thing to do as Americans and as human beings, I believe is let's minimize human contact as the CDC is saying and other outlets, OSHA. Let's do what we need to do to cut down on the spread of this because it's just on the uptick right now and what we do as an organization, it's gonna matters and it's gonna affect the outcome of how many people get affected by this thing.

Rut: Listen, I appreciate you guys coming on with me and I wish you well. I'm glad that you're on top of it for your members and, I appreciate you spending some time with me.

All: No problem.

Closing: You've been listening to Union Up, a podcast with conversations on issues facing business managers and local trade unions across the country. For more information on this podcast or to help your local grow, visit unionup.net.


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