Episode 2 - Balancing Safety with Work on the Construction Site During COVID-19

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In most markets, Construction is deemed "essential", which is great for our members and their ability to continue earning a living. But what about safety during this new reality of COVID-19? How do we balance staying safe with getting the job done? And what unforeseen opportunities might there be as a result? Atlanta North Georgia Building Trades president Randy Beall joins Union Up Podcast to talk about where NABTU stands on these issues and more. (Recorded April 1, 2020)

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Randy Excerpt: There's going to be a much needed turn of people when all this is over, we're going to be back heavily seeking a lot of folks. I hope they'll come this way.

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: So my guest today is Randy Beall. Randy is a second generation sheet metal worker, and a 30-year member of the sheet metal workers, Local Union 85. He has served the membership of the sheet metal workers Local 85 as executive board member, organizer, and business representative. And in September, 2016 Randy was elected to serve as the business manager and financial secretary treasurer for the Atlanta North Georgia Building Trades, which represents over 14 different trade unions. He also serves as the president of the Georgia Building Trades Academy. Randy, welcome.

Randy: Hey Rut. Thanks for having me.

Rut: So Randy, we're living through this strange new reality of COVID-19. I wanted to talk about the construction industry and about workers' rights specifically. I've been reading about NABU's different press releases on how they're managing this and trades people are concerned about their jobs, but they're also concerned about their personal health risks that they could be facing if they show up at work. Where do the building trades stand on that balance of keeping safe and keeping the job sites moving? And what are you hearing in terms of how employers are trying to keep workers safe while they're on site?

Randy: Well, you know what I would say is that NABU in Washington has done a very good job of getting construction into the essentials businesses, which we are. We provide infrastructure, work at hospitals, power generation and many other construction projects. They effectively, got that inserted in there. And of course we have concern of our membership, what is going on on the job site, making sure they're safe and many of the job sites that are continuing to work, which are almost all of them, in fact in Atlanta and North Georgia, not how many had been shut down, but they've done things like staggering start times, staggering breaks, staggering lunches and that minimizes contact with each other. And in general, construction workers pretty much work either by themselves or in pairs. in two. So there's not a lot of congregating. And so they've done everything they can to minimize that congregation, if you will, of people. And I think they've done it very effectively. It's so far, knock on wood as we look at projects by Plant Vogle were there are four or 5,000 construction workers, we haven't heard it any breakout down there whatsoever. And Plant Bowen where they're working 800 people right now in maintenance, zero outbreak. And so we have conference calls weekly about those jobs, and that's just to name a couple, but I haven't heard of any jobs where there is a major outbreak of COVID-19. So I think the employers, the owners, us, NABTU, the unions themselves have all done a great job. Minimizing the risks to our members while they're doing their essential job. They got to work and not only work for their own benefit but work for the good of all of Georgians.

Rut: I was reading about the measures that Plant Vogel has taken to ensure people's safety. Having a what essentially amounts to a clinic on site to make sure that everybody is safe and taking the necessary precautions. Have you heard of any other measures like that on other job sites in your jurisdiction?

Randy: Well, I know that some jobs, they're not doing it on the job necessarily, but they have asked members to take their temperatures in the morning. There are talks about doing temperature checks on the job, but that no one has implemented that yet to my knowledge, but there are asking people to do it at home. If they are running a temperature, a fever, then stay at home at all cost. And you know, because we're such a tight brotherhood and sisterhood, I know if anyone is having symptoms, I know that the way that we work in our membership is no one will put someone else at risk. Of course, the unseen evil of this particular virus is you can be infected and not know it and not show symptoms for several days. So that's why we do the staggered start, time, staggered break times, and staggered lunches. But you can't mitigate all interaction and all risky. You can't get rid of all of it, but they've done a good job. We're rest assured that our, I know our members will do the right thing if they know they have symptoms or become symptomatic. So those are good things. The other important thing that, you know, and we try to be, everybody is in the same situation, Rut, as most middle-class, and upper middle, lower middle, however you want to put it. They live paycheck to paycheck. And while that's sad and it's a reality and the fact is they have to go to work. And, you know, we talk a lot about frontline workers and we tip our hats to them and those works at hospitals. But you know, our folks are right there doing essential things that have to be done to keep power on, to keep hospital's running and you know, they're right there. They're frontline workers as well. That's why it was important to NABU and important to us to make sure we try to keep them employed as long as we possibly can. We can't, we certainly cannot dictate to a company whether or not they shut down but keeping construction projects going are certainly are our main focus.

Rut: You mentioned essential and we read a lot about that, particularly the signatory contractors particularly compete and win on those critical jobs where a lot of union members work like hospitals, data, communication centers, power plants, infrastructure, etc. And then there are the nonessential deemed certain sites, non-essential. What factors go into that? In other words, what sort of jobs remain wide open and which ones are shutting down?

Randy: I'd like for anybody to find what essential really means. You know, I've looked at the mayor's orders of Atlanta. I've looked at others from around the country and there's some the very loose definitions of what that really means, but, well of course it's easy to draw a line at power and hospitals and, data and, and all those things. You know, we're seeing there are no construction projects, zero that I'm aware of at the moment that it's completely shut down. There's been a couple that have limited access to certain trades and certain amount of manpower and they've scaled back, but that's only a few. But even high rise buildings downtown are still working. Now is that essential? It's essential if you're working on it. You're one of those men or women out there earning a paycheck. It's essential. So the best definition that I have, and like I said, it's so loose, is that construction has been deemed essential. And in fact because unions offer a service to their contractor by way of providing manpower, the union itself, the office becomes essential. And because we offer a service to the union, we have become essential and attorneys, believe it or not, because they offer services to all of the above, they are deemed essential. You know when you start building the pyramid, I began to question what isn't essential, to be honest with you, because I think a lot of people can make a case that, especially around construction, everything's essential. So that's my take on that. No real good definition. It just says construction.

Rut: I maintain that there's a lot of people that are out of work. I mean jobless claims are up, filings for unemployment has skyrocketed in so many business sectors, and it seems to me like there are a lot of employees where they're reading about essential industries and they would like to be in a career that's deemed essential. Have you thought about that? Have you thought about longterm recruiting for people who may not have considered a career in the skilled trades? That might be because of the essential skill that you learn that will last you a lifetime and the essential nature of the business of construction?

Randy: Yeah, I have. I actually give that a lot of thought and you know, just thinking, you know where we're headed in the country, who knows? Lord forbid we see unemployment numbers get to 30 I mean even 20% but you know, 30% as experts are saying it's something that no one in my lifetime has seen, nor would we want to be a part of it. But we may be heading that direction. I hope what it really does Rut above all, is even if people are only out for a short time, I hope that they take an opportunity to reevaluate where they're at in their life and their career and really give a hard look at other occupations. You know, certainly construction and union construction, what the benefits are. You know, how we're looking after our members, how we're trying to make sure that they maintain the income and keep up their life as they know it. And they'll take an opportunity to evaluate, is that job they're in really what they want to do the rest of their life. Even like I say, even if they go back to work very quickly that people will look at that and take a hard look at what they want to do in their life moving forward. And certainly construction is going to offer great opportunities. You know, we're going to have a little lull. The economy falls a little bit. We're certainly going to prepare for a change but we'll still be taking in people, we'll still be taking in apprentices, and pre-apprentices and, people really need to take a hard look at where they're headed is in their life and their career through this adversity that we all will take.

Rut: I agree. As the president of the Building Trades Academy, I know you deal a lot with high school counselors in the high school system in general. I maintain that there's a lot of kids looking at some of their, maybe their older peers that did the college thing now have a mountain of debt in an economy that is suffering and might suffer for a while here. Have you talked to them about the construction trades? Has there been any dialogue about people changing their minds and maybe looking into the Building Trades Academy as a result of this?

Randy: We run a program in the Academy called YouthBuild. It's directly aimed at 16 to 24 year olds and the underrepresented areas and underserved communities. It's a challenge we're in recruiting phase right now and maybe that would be a good future podcast for you, is to speak to director of that program. But it's a challenge because we have reached out to counselors, but of course, as you well know, since school is not in, 12 months employees are the only ones reporting, meaning janitors and maintenance, jobs of that nature. But it's obviously created a, certainly a challenge to help those that are most in need. You know, the ones that work in menial jobs to begin with that are really looking for a better life and a better way. So no, we're pressing forward with our Academy, we're looking into virtual training and how do we do that? And you know, how do we provide a service to people who need it. And apprenticeships, you know, apprenticeship classes right now are, I don't know of any that are continuing to meet in person. All of them have switched to online, like many colleges and schools are doing. So, you know, we've had to adapt in a very fast changing environment. We've had to adapt like everyone else, thankfully that technology is there, which again, goes back to, why is construction essential? Well those data data centers have to be running. And then, you know, if we're going to see a world that lives on the internet and performs training and does all for business via that kind of media, then yeah, we gotta have the data centers behind it pushing it. When you begin to think about all of it all ties together, but I'm hoping that through all of this, people will take a hard look at what they're doing and reevaluate what they want to do in life. The apprenticeship programs and the unions are here to help. We're going to be taking people in. We want to put them on the right career paths and there is going to be a much needed turn of people when all this is over, we're going to be back heavily seeking a lot of folks. I hope they'll come this way.

Break: You're listening to the Union Up podcast, a podcast with conversations on issues facing business managers and local trade unions across the country. Hosted by Rutland Walker, founder of Union Up. Union Up develops marketing programs that help local trade unions to recruit new members, grow market share and increase contractor roles for more information, visit unionup.net

Rut: I was reading about the IRAP model and the final ruling on that and from what I've read the building trades, the current model that has been so well respected and so well researched and so well played out over the last hundred years is generally been accepted. Is that a fair assessment?

Randy: It is, yeah. I mean, you know, I go to a lot of meetings in and around Atlanta with different work source agencies, and sit on the state workforce development board, and people talk about apprenticeships like I were invented yesterday. We've been doing it for a hundred years and yeah, it's kind of funny how they kind of overlook labor and what we've done and where we've come with our apprenticeships. You've got to realize NABTU spends 1.1 billion billion per year in all their affiliates in training. If we were a college, I think we would be the third largest college in the country. We were school system including LA school systems would be the number six largest in the country. So well we have a robust training program recognized by the department of labor and people are starting our apprenticeship tomorrow in their industry and they're like, Oh, we're doing this, and we're like, that's great and I wish you would have come to us to really glean our expertise on how you can really make it function well. I mean it's great if you want to be in another apprenticeship, great do it. But it's funny, they don't tap our knowledge and resources that like they're the first to ever break the ground. In a lot of arenas, we are looked at is the premiere and we are the premiere construction apprenticeship training programs. But a lot of people know this and some people don't. What separates us from technical colleges and other, I'm not going to say fly by night, but some of them are fly by night training organizations are in is that I think number one is we offer on the job training. So that is big because if you're going to technical college, learn how to weld, they don't have a job to put you on. You're going to be flipping hamburgers in the daytime and learning how to weld at night. That's not the way to learn how to weld. You will learn as much or if not more from that journey person on the job during the daytime than you will in school at night. So that on the job training element is what separates us from everybody else and deal with you throw in the fact that we're zero tuition training. There's no debt being built up. You know, it just throws us well over the top, but if you just look at the on the job, and you want to be the best of the best, then the best way to be trained is the on the job combined with classroom training. And we're the people that do that. And I think that's what separates us.

Rut: And you have to be on the job in order to be on the job. In other words, if you're in a technical school environment that shut down and you're working in a job that got shut down, it's going to be tough for you to continue your path. Whereas in the building trades unions, who have that apprenticeship program. Even when the classrooms have been shut down, you've got that online element and you've also got an industry that is deemed essential, so you're going to work. Yes?

Randy: That's right. Yes. Yeah, we have guidelines. Most of them are like 280 hours of classroom per year and then around 1800 hours of work time. So let's just look at that, right? I mean, you are getting nine times the training on the job then you are in the classroom and while we'll never replace classroom training, it's important, it lays down foundations. There is no replacement at all for that on the job training. And so yes, during these times you can do it online. But really that working on the job is where you're getting so much of your training. You know, I may not remember a lot of what I learned in the apprenticeship. It's in there, it's buried deep somewhere, in this somewhat of a brain I have. Ha. But what I do remember is I can recall certain things that my journeyman told me and you know, how to do certain things the right way and, just a quicker way and all this. I can remember what Mike Kelly taught me how to do and yet I might not remember what the book told me, but I can remember what that person told me, so, yes, it plays a very central part. Glad we still have that opportunity and we're thankful we can do the virtual training. That's great. You know, I'm glad we can adapt and quickly moved to that. Our apprenticeships have done a good job of doing that. So glad we can still get out on the job and learn from that journey person that's gone before us.

Rut: Yeah, and there's nothing that substitutes for on the job training. Which of the building trades unions has this new reality affected the most?

Randy: That's tough question because know really as of right now, like I said, not many jobs are shut down. I haven't heard of mass unemployment across the construction sector or anything like that. I would think that it's probably been disrupted possibly even equally to all of them because you know, union meetings can't be held because we can't gather in 10 or more. We have graduation for apprenticeships that have been postponed. You know, it's little things, but didn't you have unions like Kenny Mullins with IBEW that has done a great job of being a forward thinker. He's made adjustments on his health and welfare plan, to his disability, to his members have access to benefits if they're affected by COVID-19 which I think's awesome. So he's been ahead of the curve trying to help his membership and you're doing things behind the scenes that maybe his membership may or may not even know he's done. So he's taking a very active role. Not saying others haven't, I just know what he's done. And I think he's the only one I know to date that's done adjustments to benefit to combat this problem that we have. They're the largest union. So I guess if they had any impact, I guess it would be, they would be the largest. But again, I don't know of any major jobs that are shut down. That's when it becomes a biggest concern for the managers and agents of these unions is when the people will can't get to work. And so, you know, right now they are in a tough situation. I know some people would say, yeah, they can work from home and I've got to go in and all that. But these managers, new agents teetering a very fine line. They know their members have to work, but they're also trying to protect. That's a big task, Rut. To know that you need to ensure that they have income coming in, but how do I go about protecting them in the very best way that we can. It's a tough chore, but they're making it. They're doing good things and again I can't applaud Kenny enough for what he's doing with this membership. I think that he's really thinking forward.

Rut: Yeah, he's very active on social media as well. Talking to his members, which is something I recommend any business manager do. What rights do the members have on the job site if they do feel unsafe? Is there been anything that OSHA said about it or any job safety precautions on the job sites that are being put in place specifically as a result of coronavirus?

Randy: I don't know of anything OSHA's done. I mean, I'm not saying they haven't, I just haven't been made aware. But the main things I've heard is like the department of labor, you know, come out with the guidelines that if you feel like you're in fear of catching it or you have a spouse at home or maybe you're at risk yourself or whatever may be the case, you have the right to ask for a layoff or a furlough, you know, or you can even quit the job and you can draw unemployment, which in the past would have been taboo, you couldn't do that. But that came down from the department of labor. I will say this, if anyone acts on that, Georgia has to adopt that and I can't tell you the status of that. I'm sure we have. I haven't read it anywhere, but you know, just because the guidelines are put out there, does it mean that your particular state with take the monies that are tied to that to pay the unemployment, but I'm sure Georgia will if they haven't already. I would tell anybody out there that has a compromised immune system or family members at home. It's a personal decision. You gotta do what's best for you. And it's easy for me to say, you know, don't let finances overcome what you know is the best thing to do for you and your family. And you know, that line, these business managers and like myself that we have to walk, you know, and because you know, our members make that decision, I know some of them are making that decision today that's probably not in their best interest and maybe their family life. It could be someone's sick at home, but they know that they've got to provide and not just in construction, it's an abroad around this country. And so people are way in that risk compared to what is real life. I told some folks recently, I wish the government would have passed freezing mortgages and loans and payments on those kinds of things for three months because that would have made people really at ease. You know, the stimulus check is whatever, but if you freeze mortgages for three months and any loans out there, people will look at finances differently if they know they're not in risk of losing their home and we need to keep, work going, but we also need to be safe and everybody's got to make that decision for themselves.

Rut: And the good part about the building trade unions is you've got people advocating for that. I maintained that there's millions of people, like I said earlier, that are affected by this, that there's this talent pool of people who may not have been open to a new possibility of learning a new skill set in the construction trades. If someone were in that space where they're thinking about a, maybe there's a different path, what would you say to them and how might they learn more about the building trades?

Randy: Yeah, sure. Well, in general I would tell them to go to angbtc.org and you can find our website there and links to the different trades and the description of the trade. They can also go to Facebook "Georgia Construction Careers" and find information out there as well. And in both places they can submit an inquiry about an opportunity. They can go, if they go to our website, they can look at each different trade, they can research and find out which one in particular they like and narrow down and see the opportunities there. There are opportunities. The apprenticeships are still going to go, we are going to start classes in August. No, I mean it's going to happen. We cannot stop recruiting. We cannot stop taking apprentices because people will retire. People will leave the workforce. We're going to continue to take people in. People shouldn't think that just because things appear to be slow that they shouldn't try. They should absolutely try and a word out to all of our men and women who served our country first priority is always given to men and women and serve our country in the military. We have a program called, Helmets to Hardhats. They can go to helmetstohardhats.org look that up, sign up, go to the apprenticeship. And let them know your former service members and they will go to the front of the line when it comes to interviewing for the apprenticeships. I think it's important for us to share, we honor our men and women in that way.

Rut: Randy, I really appreciate you spending time with me and I'll put all those links in the post here. Thank you so much for spending time with us and, I appreciate what you do.

Randy: Thank you, Rut. I appreciate it. And I just want to tell everyone out there, Be safe and know, the building trades members are men and women are on the front line doing their job every day and are proud to do it on behalf of Georgia and all of the United States.

Rut: Thanks for joining us.

Randy: Thanks.

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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