As the pandemic took hold, many people found themselves out of work and trying to adapt to unforeseen downtime. But Roger Gill, Local12’s Health and Welfare Fund administrator, and the staff he oversees in the organization’s benefits office were busier than ever.
That’s because the benefits that members receive–including health care–continue while they are unemployed.
When most major construction sites in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville were ordered closed in March, about 80% of Local 12’s members, through no fault of their own, were laid off. (Most have since returned to work as projects were allowed to resume.) Many of them used the opportunity to check in with the benefits office. Some had questions related to unemployment. Others updated info and resolved matters that they had been meaning to pursue.
The pandemic has created much uncertainty and stress for everyone. Many American workers who have been let go faced the double whammy of losing their job and scrambling to replace the healthcare benefits they suddenly lost. That wasn’t the case for Local 12 plumbers.
“Our medical insurance allows members to take that concern right off the table,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s a level of anxiety they did not have. It’s hard to overstate the benefit.”
Once they have been working in Local 12 for one year, members are eligible for 12 months of continued healthcare coverage should they become unemployed. Those who were laid off in March due to COVID-19, therefore, would be covered through the end of March 2021.
Compare that to plumbers working for open-shop companies (as well as a large swath of employees in other types of work). They typically lose their employer-provided benefits and have to apply for COBRA health insurance, which can be costly. That could add insult to injury at a time when laid-off employees are dealing with financial uncertainty.
The union has members’ backs
When people are out of work, they generally have to go it alone. From applying for unemployment, to seeking health care alternatives, to being subjected to potentially shady financial advisors, to seeking new employment and reestablishing themselves at a different company, it can be overwhelming. It’s different at Local 12.
“Members have advocates here that work on behalf of them,” Gill says. “They have resources and someone to go to throughout their careers.” For example, those members that were laid off were able to get help navigating the process to apply for unemployment benefits.
The health insurance benefits that Local 12 offers compares favorably to those available at open-shop companies. Non-union workers often have to navigate a variety of options, some of which might include high-deductibles and may not be available for families. Local 12, however, has one comprehensive plan that is extended to members’ families, includes medical, prescription, vision, and dental coverage, has generally lower co-pays and deductibles, and features more robust plan benefits, including a $50,000 life insurance policy for active members.
In addition to health insurance coverage provided through retirement and a Medicare supplement, members also have a local union-defined benefit pension plan, a national union-defined benefit plan, a defined contribution pension plan, and Social Security benefits that allow them to retire with security and dignity.
Another benefit that Local 12 provides is counseling services. With all of the anxiety and stress-related issues caused by the pandemic, members were able to receive counseling via online telehealth sessions. Because of the camaraderie that Local 12 engenders, members were also able to turn to one another. “Informally, we sometimes step into the role of counselor,” Fandel says, referring to the sympathetic ear he and the business agents offer to members.
Gill notes that he has been through downturns before, including the recession of the early 1990s, the 2002 tech bubble burst, and the 2008 real estate market and banking collapse. “Nobody can prepare for these,” he says. But, he notes with optimism, people in Local 12 weathered those storms and will weather the COVID-19 pandemic “thanks to generations of strong leadership and top-notch employers. We’ve been around for 130 years. We’re not going anywhere.”