SMART Union president Joseph Sellers leads through the coronavirus crisis
In this exclusive interview with SNIPS, the union president gives an update and audit of the coronavirus' impact on the sheet metal industry.
With no clear direction from our country's executive branch, SMART Union president Joseph Sellers took action in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the organization's union workforce will be sheltering in place under the best-case scenario. For many union Locals, this meant quickly getting their members on unemployment to begin collecting benefits rather than having their work habitually cut short by outbreaks.
"Layoff is a familiar term in the construction industry, but not in all sectors," says Sellers. "It is too early to tell what part of the stimulus packages that employers have access to, but displaced workers need and deserve to collect unemployment. There are so many scenarios out there; a worker can show up in the morning only to be told the job has been shutdown due to a confirmed case."
Because unemployment benefits in the U.S. and Canada vary by state and province, Sellers' role has been to empower each local union to do what is best for their membership while keeping physical health of each member a priority. Using this strategy, the union's members are not only surviving during shelter in place restrictions. They are thriving.
One sheet metal shop's volunteer initiative to provide aluminum strips for homemade face masks has since developed into a national movement for the union and a good piece of PR illustrating the power of the skilled trade workforce. “We want to do everything we can to help and support health care workers and first responders who are on the front lines helping people and savings lives in our communities during this public health crisis,” said Sellers about the effort. “This is a great idea that began with one union shop in Connecticut and took off like wildfire. We are now working to scale this up as fast as we can across the United States and Canada.”
As economies across the country open back up, and construction crews get back to work, Sellers gives an update and audit of how the union plans to get its members back to work slowly and safely."Next comes the threat and unknown of exposure. Workers rightfully wonder: Was I on that floor or in that area? Then, the potential spread to their family and coworkers."
In which states is the SMART labor force currently operating at or close to capacity? Are there states experiencing interruptions that have significantly lowered the percentage of the labor force still working?
Each state and province are different in the circumstances they face. Cities, counties and territories even within each of these face situations that often varies by locality. Many of what we are experiencing differs based on whether construction is considered essential. When construction is not listed as essential, then unfortunately there is unemployment.
Right now, there are state “shelter in place” orders for states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts. At the same time, there is work being done related to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. From converting hospital rooms to convention centers into negative pressure containment for health care, there is design work along with fabrication as well as testing, adjusting and balancing work.
Are there any states where the SMART labor force is not working at all? Have those members been instructed to apply for unemployment?
There are some areas with 80 to 85 percent unemployment at this moment. Members are facing a situation where they are applying for unemployment, along with more than 30 million others in the last month. Some are having difficulties getting through to their state unemployment offices, some may take up to 6 weeks based on where they live and the resources appropriated to unemployment services within their state. Electronic applications seem to be better and more efficient but may not lead to receiving UI checks any quicker.
For our part we continually urge members to follow state and local guidelines from public officials. We have provided step-by-step information for our local unions and our members affected by the shutdown on how to collect unemployment insurance. This includes resources for workers in both the United States and Canada.
SMART is unique in that many members qualify for SASMI, the “Stabilization Fund of the Sheet Metal Industry” and other supplemental unemployment benefits. Displacement from employment due to COVID-19 qualifies SASMI qualified members for a special emergency benefit that they have already begun receiving.
Is there ever a point in time in the pandemic when SMART would recommend the complete withdrawal of all of its workforce from jobs to protect the health of the labor force?
Nationally, I don’t anticipate a no-work order across the US or CA. The spread and contamination of the virus is varied in every State and Province in Canada as it determines its own pace.
Some cities, counties and territories have issued essential work orders that put members to work while other jobs across both nations have been shutdown to improve workers safety and job conditions. Labor and management, working together, must be vigilant as we grapple with the preeminent workplace safety issue of our time.
At the same time, the occupational safety and the protection of their workers are the employers' responsibility. Due to the unprecedented nature of this virus, all of us need to work together in protecting our essential workers, our co-workers and those on the front lines.
I can say that Local Union leadership has been very engaged in our members’ safety. We continue to urge our members to contact their union and employer when there is a danger on the job site. On April 14, OSHA issued a notice declaring COVID-19 as an imminent danger. This also provides workers with whistleblower protection to ensure they and their co-workers are protected.
At SMART, local leaders are attending regional and international conference calls and zoom meetings and are engaging with building trades councils and contacting International Representatives, posting information about conditions as they develop.
Do you have an idea of how many SMART members have confirmed COVID-19 cases? What has been SMART’s response to protect transportation workers who regularly interact with the public?
We do not currently have a snapshot of how many members may have confirmed COVID-19 infections. Due to well-documented problems with access to comprehensive testing across the United States, we may never know. Certainly, members living in areas hit hardest by the coronavirus are more at risk. We are hearing of more members falling ill and including those passing away.
We are providing regularly updated and comprehensive information, guidelines and resources for members regarding COVID-19, both from our international and at the local level. This includes a COVID-19 portal on our smart-union.org website, an online incident reporting form for our rail and transit members, video and podcast episodes focused on SMART’s response to COVID-19 and more.
On any given day, we post on social media and text or email to our members new communications highlighting and linking to these resources. A portion of this is focused on members who interact with the public. And, of course, local staff such as business managers and business representatives are also a critical resource for members with any questions about what measures are being taken to ensure their safety at work. We also provide resources for members through the CDC and SMOHIT, the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Industry Trust, which compiles recommendations from scientists and health officials for members. This information is geared to all members needing to take proper precautions at work, not only those who may suspect they have been infected with COVID-19.
The effort to produce aluminum nose strips for face masks started with Hillery Company as a volunteer effort. How many Locals are participating in this effort now?
We currently have 64 local unions and counting throughout the United States and Canada participating in this effort. Local unions have partnered with signatory employers, who are playing a big role in donating some of the equipment and material necessary for this effort. I am proud to say that within 24 hours after the request for support from Hillery came in, we had local unions donating pieces immediately in every state and province in both nations.
Through April 16, we have had more than 8,900 requests for a total of more than 4.8 million nose pieces. Tens of thousands of these pieces are now shipping out each day to volunteers making face masks, many of whom tell us the donations are critical to their efforts to help first responders and health care workers in their communities. Much of this was made possible working in conjunction with our signatory employers who selflessly devoted time and material to this effort.
Utilizing SMART’s national workforce, are there any other initiatives the union is participating in to help to fight COVID-19?
SMART members are on the front lines across North America, constructing and testing emergency medical facilities that are treating COVID-19 patients and working side-by-side with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. This includes emergency facilities in places such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and other hot spots where the virus has taken a major toll.
We also have members working around the clock in Denver, Providence, Milwaukee, Omaha and other areas where the virus seems to be emerging. In addition, members at some SMART locals are manufacturing HVAC equipment that has already been shipped out to some of these emergency facilities.
SMART members are essential workers as we move people and goods throughout our communities. Transit rail and bus members are on the front line. Freight rail workers are transporting our supply chain across our country.
As you know, some job sites are still open in states where they are essential. What options does a SMART member have if he or she does not wish to work out of fear of COVD-19 infection?
The choice to work or not is a personal one and unique to each individual and his or her circumstances. Many SMART families have members who are in vulnerable populations, including young people with autoimmune diseases and seniors. We respect their wishes to protect themselves and their families because, at the end of the day, the health and well being of our loved ones is first and foremost.
All workers have added stress and anxiety. Those working are worried of illness and spreading to a loved one and coworkers. Those not working are worried about getting by, providing and how long.
Local Unions are in constant communication with our signatory employers regarding measures that need to be in place to ensure employees are provided and wearing their PPE, practicing social distancing at work, disinfecting high touch areas and washing their hands regularly. This also includes avoiding car-pools and adhering to other safe work practices that protect the health and safety of everyone on the job. When a worker tests positive, that site should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized prior to any workers being introduced back onto the site.
Without reliable testing, workers who have symptoms of illness should not return to work and should self-quarantine for 14 days. There are temporary regulatory measures such as taking workers temperatures upon entering the workplace at the beginning of the day, sometimes at lunch and at the end of the day.
What is SMART’s No. 1 priority for its workforce right now?
Our top priority is protecting the health and safety of our members. At the same time, we want to ensure we are equipped to participate in the response to this surging pandemic, doing all we can to help members, families and communities in need. This includes the issuance of personal protective equipment (PPE) to all members to ensure they can safely perform their work without risking their health, or the health of their family.
In the long run, once our economies get back on track, we expect to continue our work in addressing growth, emerging markets and work opportunities, which we have been doing in partnership with our signatory contractors.
What does SMART need right now at the federal level to help its labor force?
Right now, we need PPE and reliable testing. An extension of COBRA benefits to protect workers’ health care coverage and federal funding of the federal government’s own PBGC, to protect retirees by addressing pension benefit relief and not do so on the back of healthy plans.
Obviously, projections are just that: projections. However, if this crisis becomes a way of life, is there any talk of shifting SMART’s skilled labor to other industries beyond sheet metal to fill the void?
We are not projecting a US or Canadian shutdown. SMART does work with other unions and sectors to provide a skilled and safe workforce, as needed and welcome the opportunity to expand on these types of partnerships when they arise. This is especially true when it comes to our efforts to continue to make and maintain a safe working environment.
When it comes to emerging markets, we are going to be seeing more of a focus on the emergence of indoor air quality and deep HVAC retrofits, improving energy efficiencies and reducing our carbon emissions as a segment of the industry. Labor and management have already built curriculum around the high standards we have set in this arena through the International Training Institute (iTi), National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), and our training facilities.
We also are right now positioned to address what the industry will look like in some other areas as we transition coming out of this pandemic. One of these will be in hospitals along with other public areas like schools and government centers that will come into contact with large numbers of people. We expect new protocols to be in place to properly address how to protect large swaths of the public in common areas such as these.
What immediate lessons do you think SMART has learned from the fallout from the pandemic? How will you position SMART to be stronger the next time something like this happens?
The first lesson comes in learning how fast this can happen. The crisis signals were becoming apparent back in November. It then escalated and began to take front stage for many Americans and Canadians when the first NBA game cancellation occurred, then spread to the rest of the NBA, to NHL, to NCAA March Madness, and then to today’s stay at home orders. Information is knowledge and it would be best construct a well-informed process for decision makers at all levels.
We also were affirmed in knowing our most valued resource, our members and industry’s workers are kept safe. There cannot be a bottom line on worker’s health and safety, no matter how certain groups in society may try to label us. And above all, it is be safe! Safety is paramount to not only our health and well-being, but is a critical linchpin of our economy today as evidenced by what we are witnessing around us.