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Elevator Mechanics Hold Out Against COVID-19 Pandemic

November 17, 2020 by Reece Nations

Of all the classes of workers who have come to be highlighted as “essential” during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one group that is often, unfairly overlooked are those who keep the infrastructure of high rise offices and residential buildings functioning — elevator mechanics.

Throughout the pandemic’s duration, Jessica Bushnell, an apprentice mechanic with the International Union of Elevator Constructors, said the organization has gone to great lengths to ensure their safety on the job. 

“It’s alarming because they are doing so much to keep us safe and protected against (coronavirus),” Bushnell said. “But no matter what, there’s still a risk there. Even if we’re wearing our facemasks, we could still get it.” 

Personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing is provided to the mechanics from the contractors who work with the IUEC, Bushnell said. In addition, all of the instruction for her apprenticeship and local chapter meetings have been moved to an online-exclusive format. 

Elevator mechanics often work in close quarters to each other, she said. Because of this — and by virtue of working in locations where the virus can easily spread, like hospitals, malls and public spaces — much of the IUEC workforce is perpetually at risk of infection. 

“I think I probably speak for all of us when I say that I’m really glad that we’re doing what we’re doing and that we are considered a part of the essential work category,” she said. 

Bushnell, a veteran of the United States Coast Guard, said she found the IUEC after registering with the “Helmets to Hardhats” program. Helmets to Hardhats is a national nonprofit program connecting military service members, veterans, National Guard members and reservists to opportunities in the construction industry, according to its website

Support for labor unions is on the rise nation-wide, according to Gallup. From July 30 through Aug. 12, respondents surveyed by Gallup indicated they approve of labor unions by a margin of 65% to 30%, with 5% indicating no opinion. 

In Aug. 2010, labor union approval was at an all-time low with just 52% of surveyed respondents indicating their support, according to Gallup’s survey. During this time, 41% of respondents indicated disapproval of labor unions and 7% had no opinion. 

Trade union approval is now at its highest level since Aug. 2003, according to Gallup’s findings.  

Joe Yuret, member of IUEC Local 1 in New York City, said the organization’s benefits have made all the difference since the onset of the pandemic. Yuret, a U.S. Army veteran, has been a member of the IUEC since 2014, he said. 

“Those are things that sometimes in the non-union sector (are) not available to everyone,” Yuret said. “Especially at this time with COVID and all these things changing, it makes it more challenging for people who don’t have the benefit of a union or a strong team behind (them).” 

Yuret’s healthcare is provided by IUEC through Blue Cross Blue Shield, he said. Without the security afforded by the inclusion of this benefit, he and his family may not have fared as well as they have. 

With his IUEC membership, Yuret said he also is eligible for a pension and an annuity. With all that has gone on in the past few months, he said efforts to unionize New York City’s workforce has escalated.

“We’ve spoken to guys who have 10 years of experience or more as an elevator mechanic, and some are making half of what a Local 1 (mechanic) makes,” Yuret said. “And, you know, it’s really not fair, but it’s how the non-union sector works. In our opinion, those men are being taken advantage of.” 

Many members of the IUEC past and present are either active-duty military members or veterans, according to the IUEC website. The union is a desirable avenue for veterans in transitionary phases because of hiring initiatives like Helmets to Hardhats and other measures of support like the “A Lift for A Vet,” a program in which IUEC members install stairlifts and elevators for veterans in need. 

Juwan Harrison, a reservist in the U.S. Army, is currently a member of the Tampa-area chapter of the IUEC — known as Local 74. A former Psychological Operations Specialist, Harrison said he was medically discharged from the Army but chose to return as a reservist after undergoing physical therapy for his injury. 

The non-union sector of the trade not only lacks benefits like a pension and healthcare, it often lacks basic uniformity and organization, Harrison said. The absence of the structure provided by the union often comes as a detriment to the workers. 

“It’s a whole lot of going back and forth with supervisors,” he said. “I remember every mechanic I had worked with non-union, they always spoke highly of me to the supervisors. I once asked one supervisor I was (working) under for a raise, and he told me I had to meet a certain criterion of requirements. And then when I actually met those requirements, he said ‘Oh, I never said that.’” 

With IUEC, one becomes eligible for pay scale increases and advanced training the longer they are a member, Harrison said. Once he completes his military service, Harrison said he plans to fully transition into his career as an elevator mechanic.

If one is interested in exploring their own career path with the IUEC, more information on how to register can be found at IUEC.org. The elevator constructor apprenticeship program is managed by the National Elevator Industry Educational Program.    

“(The union) is a great option for anyone in the military who doesn’t quite know what they want to do once they’re through with their service,” Harrison said. “Even if it’s way different from your military job, they work with you to get you the specialized training you need. It definitely opens up a lot of doors for you and the benefits compared to non-union jobs are unmatched” 

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