Jovai Taylor and Michael Alewxander Local 12 Boston apprentices

2020 will be memorable first year for apprentices

No matter what may be happening outside of the industry, it’s always momentous for apprentices when they join Local 12 and begin their training.

Members likely have vivid memories of their first year in the program as they began to learn the trade and started on their journey in a new career. But for the thirty first-year apprentices who came on board in 2020 amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, their experiences will be especially memorable. The Pipeline caught up with two of them to learn about their path to Local 12.

Michael Alexander

As a third-generation Local 12 member, you might think that it would have been Michael Alexander’s destiny to become a plumber and join the union. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While he always liked putting things together and making things work, Alexander chose to study engineering in college. But when he joined the Army National Guard three years ago as a helicopter mechanic, he found his calling working with his hands.

“It was then that I knew the desk thing wasn’t really going to be for me,” says Alexander, noting that he enjoyed being in the field repairing and replacing helicopter parts. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work in the trades.”

As to what trade, his family provided inspiration. Alexander’s grandfather, Ed Farrell, uncle, Brian Farrell, and cousin, Ryan Farrell, all joined Local 12 and pursued plumbing as a career. He sought the advice of his uncle, who helped convince him to follow the family tradition.

“Even though I had grown up hearing about the union, I didn’t know much about it,” Alexander says. “After my uncle told me about the high professional standards, the safety standards, the wages, the benefits, and more, I decided to apply.”

Alexander was accepted into the local in 2019, but duty called when the Army National Guard deployed him to the Middle East. Part of a heavy maintenance team, he serviced Blackhawk helicopters in his home base, Kuwait, as well as in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Over the course of Alexander’s deployment, which lasted through

January of this year, his team supported 33,000 hours of combat flight time. “I knew that I had Local 12 to go home to,” he says.

Upon his return, Alexander went to work for Glionna Plumbing and Heating where he has remained. Not long after he started, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Alexander notes that there have been no reported virus cases at any of the job sites on which he has been working. He credits Glionna, the general contractors, and the safety protocols adopted by the building trades for helping to keep him and his coworkers safe.

Many of Glionna’s projects are municipal buildings. Alexander, for example, has been working on new police headquarters in Belmont and Beverly. The crews are relatively small, which makes it easier to social distance. 

He cites another benefit of working for a smaller shop. “My uncle was a foreman and ran a lot of huge jobs. With Glionna, I get to do a lot more, because I wear many hats. I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience with a variety of things.”

Alexander says that his military experience and regard for the chain of command has served him well at job sites. “It makes it easier for me to learn. I have respect for the journeyman and foreman above me,” he notes. “You only have to tell me things once.”

He also notes parallels between the military and the union. “With Local 12, there’s strength in unity. We have each other’s backs. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

As for the benefits he is receiving, the 24-year-old says that he doesn’t know anybody else his age with a health care plan, an annuity, and a pension. “It’s pretty fantastic.”

Jovai Taylor

She always liked working with her hands, but Jovai Taylor ended up with jobs at auto dealerships and a car rental agency. Tired of sitting at a desk and seeking a change, she thought about the things she liked doing and remembered how much she enjoyed working alongside her father helping him with home 

repairs and improvements. It’s something Taylor carried with her throughout her life. She says that she always tries to figure out how to do things herself. She thought construction could be something to pursue.

“I wanted to get into the building trades for a long time,” Taylor says. “But I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Then a friend who is a pipefitter told her about Building Pathways. The Roxbury-based pre-apprenticeship program helps prepare people, especially women, people of color, and others in underserved communities, for careers in the building trades. Local 12 is one of the unions that works with and supports Building Pathways.

Taylor enrolled in the program in 2019 to begin her new career path. As part of the curriculum, participants are asked to identify two trades they would like to enter. She chose plumbing and pipefitting.

After graduating from Building Pathways, Taylor applied to some of the building trade unions. While she waited to hear from them, she took a job with a nonunion shop to get some experience.

Accepted by Local 12, the first-year apprentice says that up until recently, she didn’t know much about unions. “Now, there is a sense of security. I understand that Local 12 has my best interests at heart and is looking out for me,” Taylor says. “Unlike past jobs, it feels like a career for me now.”

Having briefly worked for a nonunion contractor, she says that there is a big difference on the union side. “The way I’m treated, the pay, the benefits–it’s all so much better.”

As a woman working in the trades, Taylor says her gender has been a non-issue. Everyone has been accepting her.

Since joining Local 12, Taylor has been working for GBPCA contractor TG Gallagher at 51 Sleeper Street in Boston’s Seaport District. The mixed-use building, which dates back to 1924, is being renovated and converted into new office and lab space.

While the class sizes are smaller than usual at Local 12’s training center, and everyone is wearing a mask along with other safety measures, Taylor says that as a first-year apprentice, she has nothing to compare it to. Her experiences in the classroom and the center’s shop have been great, she notes. Taylor is especially looking forward to learning more about welding and brazing.

Boston Children's Hospital Prouty Garden taking dirt for new buidling

The spirit of BCH’s Prouty Garden lives on

In order to carve out a footprint for the Hale Family Building now under construction on the land-challenged Boston Children’s Hospital campus, the organization decided to use the courtyard that had been the site of the Prouty Garden. The removal of the garden has caused controversy.

“The Prouty Garden has had a special place in the hearts of many families,” says Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent. “Many patients would visit its tree during their stays and found comfort there. Some families would spread the ashes of their children in the garden.”

When word got out that the hospital was planning to build over the garden, many supporters came forward to oppose the project. A group sued the hospital and asked for a court injunction to stop the clinical building from moving forward. The motion was ultimately denied.

In acknowledgment of its importance, BCH is honoring the garden in a number of ways. According to Jim Bent, senior project executive for American Plumbing and Heating, the GBPCA contractor working on the Hale job, the Dawn Redwood that stood at the center of the garden was sent to a mill, and its timber will be used to make benches and other items for new and existing gardens at the hospital.

“The spirit of the tree remains,” Bent says. “The spirit of the garden will remain.”

Also, families and staff members at BCH were able to take seeds from the tree to plant in their own yards. And soil from Prouty Garden was collected and will be transferred to other gardens at the hospital. Plants and statues, as well, have been or will be moved and showcased in other gardens.

Harding and Smith plumbing contractor at the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant in Marlborough, Massachusetts

Harding and Smith keeps the water infrastructure flowing

“People may take for granted the luxury of water coming into their home and wastewater leaving their home,” says Mike Perrotta, estimator and project manager at GBPCA contractor Harding and Smith. “But there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”

He should know. Harding and Smith (H&S) is one of the Boston-area shops that specialize in process piping for the water and water treatment industry. While most plumbers tap into existing water and sewage systems to build projects, the Local 12 plumbers that work for H&S build and help maintain the water supply and wastewater plants that are at the heart of the systems. It is important, if often unheralded infrastructure work that is essential to the lifeblood and wellbeing of communities. It is also unique work that involves massive-scale piping and requires highly skilled plumbers.

Dating back to 1975, H&S initially focused on water and wastewater piping, including the makeover of the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant that serves Boston and 42 communities in Eastern Massachusetts. Perrotta says that he was an apprentice when the project started and remembers the prison that used to sit among the rolling hills on the island. Many GBPCA contractors worked on the huge job. H&S, Perrotta says, was instrumental in a lot of the project’s work.

“The scale of the Deer Island rebuild was massive,” says Perrotta, noting that some of the pipes were ten feet in diameter, and the plant’s outfall tunnel, which extends over nine miles, was 24 feet in diameter. “It was a major engineering feat.”

GBPCA plumbing contractor Harding and Smith at  Deer Island Treatment Plant
A Harding and Smith crew works late at night on a project at the Deer Island Treatment Plant.

So how does a crew approach projects that involve such huge piping? “A lot of it is upfront pre-planning,” according to Perrotta. Instead of cutting pipe in the field, H&S prefabricates it using computer-aided design to ensure that the pieces fit together properly. On site, the plumbers need to use special hoisting and heavy rigging procedures to handle the piping.

“It’s the hands-on work that is really important,” says Perrotta. There are heavy tools involved, as well as large flanges and bolts. Plumbers need to carefully calculate the piping’s center of gravity before moving it. “It’s a unique skill,” he says and adds that H&S does a lot of in-house training by pairing older, veteran plumbers with younger ones–in the industry’s longstanding tradition of apprentice training. “We have to get it right. Safety is the top priority,” says Perrotta.

More recently, H&S has been using a lot of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for piping. Among the projects on which the shop is using the material is the MWRA’s Chelsea Creek Headworks pumping station. Perrotta explains that the shop builds the fiberglass out until it is the right thickness.

H&S does work on smaller-scale water projects for municipalities as well. It recently replaced the pump system for the water plant operated by the town of Ipswich, for example.

Because communities cannot function without water and wastewater systems, Perrotta says that a lot of the work H&S does is performed on a tight schedule. Often, its crews will work through the night with the goal of bringing everything back on line by the morning. It takes a lot of forethought and careful planning.

While water and wastewater plants remain one of the core specialties of the mechanical contractor, H&S has expanded its services and capabilities through the years. It also handles instrumentation and control systems, for example, and does work for the power and biotechnology industries among others. In most cases, however, the shop is still working with large-scale systems and pipe.

Other projects on which H&S has worked include drainage piping systems for Fore River Bridge in Quincy, standpipe work for the MBTA’s subway system, and a new pumping system for the Department of Transportation’s O’Neill Tunnel in Boston.

MWRA is tracking COVID-19 in wastewater

The coronavirus pandemic has presented many challenges. It has been difficult, for example, to accurately track the presence of COVID-19 as well as to predict and prevent outbreaks in communities.

Given current clinical screening processes, it is costly and impractical to conduct large-scale testing of individuals on a regular basis. Compounding the problem, many people who contract the virus are asymptomatic and therefore remain undetected if they have not been tested. They are nevertheless capable of infecting others and causing outbreaks.

If only there was some relatively simple, cost-effective way to identify rising infection levels in an area before the virus has a chance to spread. It turns out there is: by analyzing wastewater.

Researchers have discovered that before they show symptoms, infected people shed the virus in their stool. Scientists in the Netherlands first reported that they were able to detect the genetic signal of the virus in wastewater samples. Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics was the first in the United States to trace COVID-19 by using wastewater samples from the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston.

Subsequently, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) awarded a $200,000 contract to Biobot in June to conduct a pilot study of wastewater at Deer Island. The study’s data, which is collected three times a week, serves as an early warning system for Eastern Massachusetts. It can predict infection upticks, transmission rates, and other trends one to two weeks ahead of more traditional clinical diagnoses. The MWRA makes the study’s data available on its website:

Wastewater from Boston and 42 other communities flows through Deer Island where it is treated and then discharged through a 9.5-mile, 24-foot-diameter outfall tunnel under the harbor and into Massachusetts Bay. The plant’s 130-foot-tall, egg-shaped anaerobic digesters, which treat sludge and scum that is extracted from sewage, are a distinctive and prominent sight in Boston Harbor.

The MWRA was formed in 1985 in response to federal environmental regulations and a court order to address the wastewater that was polluting Boston Harbor. To comply, the agency rebuilt the Deer Island facility, and GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers played an important role in constructing the massive project. It is one of the largest wastewater plants in the world.

According to Mike Perrotta, estimator and project manager at GBPCA contractor Harding and Smith, the Biobot study is not able to trace virus rates at a city or town level. But it is able to track the virus coming from a cluster of communities in Boston and north of the city and another cluster of communities south of the city. That’s because influent arrives at the plant from two regional pumping stations: Nut Island in Quincy to the south and the Chelsea Creek Headworks in Chelsea to the north.

“I find it amazing that it’s possible to pinpoint levels of COVID based on wastewater,” Perrotta says.

Harding and Smith, which specializes in providing process piping for the waste and water treatment industry, has worked extensively at the Deer Island plant and is currently working on a project at the Chelsea Creek Headworks.

Biobot is now partnering with 43 states and provinces in North America and 182 local agencies to test wastewater for COVID-19 using samples from 360 wastewater facilities. The company told the Boston Globe that “wastewater offers the opportunity to provide near real-time trend data to evaluate the impact of policy making, early warning for second waves, and the opportunity to mass-test the U.S. population on a regular basis at a fraction of the cost of clinical testing.”

The MWRA’s pilot program with Biobot extends through the end of 2020. The agency says that at the conclusion of the period, it will likely develop a long-term testing program that will continue into 2021 and beyond if the pandemic has not abated.