Herbert Tyler’s Local 12 dues card from the 1960s

Four generations of Tylers at Local 12

 “It’s a great life being a plumber,” says Richard “Tim” Tyler. “It’s great working as part of the union.” 

It’s so great, in fact, being a Local 12 plumber has become something of a family tradition for the Tyler clan. Tim’s grandfather, father, and brother all pursued careers as union plumbers. Soon, his son will follow in their footsteps.

It’s a recurring theme at Local 12. There are many instances of family members taking cues from their parents or other relatives and entering the trade. But it’s notable when four successive generations of a family lay claim to a union card.

“The Tylers show that Local 12 really resonates with families and plays an important role in their lives,” says Tim Fandel, business manager. “We continue to be viable and relevant through the years.”

The saga of the Tylers all started with Herbert Tyler. A “small-time plumber in Bangor, Maine,” according to Tim, Herbert packed up his family of seven and moved them to the Boston area in 1945. A friend of his told him that Local 12 was looking for members, and, sensing opportunity, Herbert didn’t hesitate.

He did, indeed, find opportunity as a union plumber. Working for Ferris and Mahoney (a mechanical contractor that is no longer in business), Herbert ran large projects. He overcame adversity and was well respected by his employers and those who worked for him, according to Tim.

“He had a learning disability and was unable to read blueprints,” he explains about his grandfather. Nevertheless, Herbert understood large, complicated systems and was able to successfully lead his crews. “All his jobs made money,” Tim says with a laugh.

Tim Tyler (R) and his son, Jake.

Later in his career, Herbert became a plumbing inspector in Bedford, Massachusetts, his hometown. Even as an older gentleman, Tim remembers that his grandfather was always on the move and was an especially fast walker. “You had to run to keep up with him,” he says.

Tim’s father, Richard H. Tyler, served in the Marine Corps. When he finished his military duty, he too joined Local 12 and entered its apprenticeship program. Among the contractors he worked for were Ferris and Mahoney and Baystate York. One of the signature projects Richard worked on was the Prudential Center.

“He ran work at a relatively young age,” Tim says. “He was very good at it like his father. He was a small guy, but everybody was afraid of him. He just had that look about him.”

They got the work done, adds Tim. And despite his father’s fearsome look, he says, everybody liked him. A hard-working man, Richard put in 60 hours a week and then had side jobs to supplement his income.

As children, Tim and his brother Scott remember helping their dad clean up scrap copper and other tasks. They got their hands dirty and learned about the trade. The work and the life of a union plumber called out to both of them.

They joined Local 12 and often found themselves working together for contractors such as Kennedy Mechanical, Cannistraro, and, more recently, Pinnacle Construction Services. Tim also logged ten years with PCA contractor, J.C. Higgins, working on landmark projects such as the Big Dig and the Convention Center.

Scott and Tim worked together for a decade with their father when Richard opened his own shop, Tyler Plumbing. A Local 12 signatory contractor, the shop specialized in medical gas. Tyler Plumbing worked on a lot of nursing home projects as well as several VA hospitals.

The business was tough financially for his dad, Tim says. “At the time, Local 12 didn’t have programs for smaller shops like they do today. He would have benefitted from that so much. The union has come a long way.”

Richard didn’t start Tyler Plumbing until he was 50. When he closed the shop, he retired.

In addition to Tim and Scott, Richard had two daughters. Tim says that the boyfriend of one of his sisters asked Richard for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He responded that he didn’t like what the suitor did for a living.

“If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to join the plumbers union,” Richard told him.

“That’s what he did,” says Tim. “He had no choice in the matter.”

It should probably come as no surprise that Richard convinced his other son-in-law to become a plumber also.

While plumbing was all in the family, Richard initially had other plans for Scott. Always a good student, he wanted his younger son to go to college. During his senior year in high school, Scott began working regularly with his father on side jobs.

“He put me in the lousiest bathrooms and had me gut them out. I think he was hoping to scare me away,” Scott says. “Instead, I loved it.”

Scott continues to specialize working on projects that feature medical gas. With Pinnacle, he has been running many jobs in the Longwood area, including projects at Beth Israel Deaconess, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute.

Now 61, Tim says that he is getting near the downside of his career and is looking forward to retirement. His son, Jake, however, is just beginning his plumbing career.

His story has a familiar ring to it. Starting as a young teenager, Jake says that his father brought him to side jobs on weekends. He has been tooling around boilers, water heaters, and sinks for many years. Jake enjoyed the trade so much, he went to Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica and began working at a plumbing shop in his junior year.

“I’m carrying on the family tradition,” he says proudly.

The 18-year-old graduated high school last spring and recently applied to Local 12. He hopes to apprentice with large contractors and do major commercial projects such as high rises. And so, the Tyler family’s plumbing legacy continues.

“Plumbing and Local 12 have been very good to us,” concludes Scott.

How do you get water to the middle of nowhere?

Local 12 volunteers build wash stations for Navajo Water Project

“People need water and sewerage,” says Rick Carter, Local 12’s training director. “Most people take running water and indoor plumbing for granted.” That is, until something fails. Then they realize the critical role that plumbers play. Some folks, however, don’t have ready access to life’s most basic needs. For example, one in three people live without a sink or a toilet–that’s 67 times more likely than other Americans–on the Navajo Nation, a vast swath of land that spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Plumbers are rising to the challenge.

The United Association (Local 12’s parent organization) organized the Wash Station Challenge over the summer. The goal was to construct 20 outdoor wash stations targeted for remote areas in Navajo Nation. As part of the UA effort, volunteers at Local 12’s training center built two of the units.

The UA first got involved with the Navajo Nation two years ago when it partnered with the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) and the DigDeep organization’s Navajo Water Project to build a water tank, septic system, bathrooms, and more in New Mexico.

“It was like that show, ‘Restaurant Impossible,’ ” says Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the UA. “I called it ‘bathroom impossible.’ But we got it done. It was very rewarding.” Bigley serves on the board of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and IWSH is the association’s public charity.

Last year, Plumbers Local 400 in Wisconsin helped develop and build a prototype wash station. Its success led to this year’s Wash Station Challenge. Amid the pandemic, the Navajo Nation has experienced some of the highest infection rates in the U.S. With running water scarce on the reservation, people have limited ability to wash their hands and help prevent the virus from spreading. The wash stations are intended to support and enable handwashing in local communities and remote households to help halt COVID’s spread and promote public health and hygiene awareness.

“When Harry Brett and Tim Fandel learned what we did, they offered to help with future projects,” Bigley says.

“We are honored to be asked to help and happy to do so,” says Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. He notes that the joint labor-management group that the union has with its affiliated contractors provided the funds for the project’s materials. “It was very generous of them,” Fandel says.

The stations, which are about five-and-a-half feet wide and deep, contain a 210-gallon water tank and a sink assembly with a drop-down steel mesh countertop on one of its sides. The tank is inside an insulated cabinet and includes a heating element to prevent the water from freezing during the winter. The mobile units sit on steel frames with large wheels.

“They look like chicken coops that are bound for the moon or like the Mars rovers,” says Bigley with a laugh.

A wash station in use at Navajo Nation.

The first step in assembling the stations was to build their frames, which involved welding aluminum stainless steel and carbon stainless steel. The training center’s welding instructor, Bobby Niles, and two apprentices in Local 12’s welding program came in Saturdays and some nights to work on the frame. Other instructors and apprentices handled the units’ shells, which included wooden doors. The stations were built in the training center’s new annex shop.

Some of the stations use electricity. The off-grid models that Local 12 built include solar panels. Training center instructor Johnny Tierney, who is a licensed electrician, wired them so they would be self-powered.

“There was a lot of cutting and fabrication to build the stations,” Carter says adding that they took from May to September to complete. “We have great instructors and apprentices who wanted to be involved and donated their time.”

Navajo Nation UA Wash Station Challenge Local 12 Boston
Left: Local 12 volunteers welded the frames for the wash stations. Right: One of Local 12’s stations under construction.

The training director says that several partners got involved with the project as well. For example, Ferguson Plumbing donated the sinks and the water tanks. Local 12 neighbor Gilbert & Becker, which is a roofing contractor, put metal skins on the exterior of the stations to make them weathertight. When the units were completed, the company also supplied a forklift to load them–all 1,100 lbs. of them–onto moving trucks for shipping.

Bound for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Carter says that the location is “literally in the middle of nowhere.” Because there is no street address, the shipper had to use GPS coordinates. Once they arrived on site, DigDeep distributed and installed the washing stations. “Hopefully they will get years of use out of them,” Carter says.

“I think everyone’s aware that Native Americans have been treated unfairly,” says Bigley. “Our people like to work with their hands, and this is a way that we can help. It really resonates.” He adds that the UA will continue working with Navajo Nation, and that the next challenge will likely be bathroom units.

Whatever the project, Carter and Fandel say that Local 12 stands ready to help.

Bargaining in good faith

Earlier this year, members of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and Plumbers Local 12 sat across from one another and ironed out the details of a four-year contract. The document they developed specifies the terms and conditions by which contractors employ the Local’s plumbers and includes issues such as wages, benefits, and safety practices. The process for the meetings, which included representatives of both management and labor that negotiated on behalf of their groups, is known as collective bargaining, and the result of the negotiations is a collective bargaining agreement.

The collective bargaining process is at the very heart of what unions are all about. It is one of the key attributes that distinguishes Local 12 members and the union’s affiliated contractors from their counterparts at non-union plumbing shops and the plumbers who work for them. The employee-employer relationship is fundamentally different.

According to both sides, the negotiations reflected the positive relationship that the PCA and Local 12 leadership have enjoyed for many years. Unlike the stereotype of labor and management being inherently suspicious of one another and, in some cases, at each other’s throats, the two organizations operate more out of a common belief that in partnership they can help each other succeed. It’s a collaborative rather than an adversarial relationship.

“The best deal is one that benefits both sides,” says John Marani, president of the PCA and lead negotiator for management at the collective bargaining meetings. “That’s the attitude we went in with, and that characterizes where we landed.”

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager and the chief negotiator for labor, expresses a similar view. “Our shared goals are woven together,” he says. “There is an underlying incentive for us to reach an equitable agreement.”

That doesn’t mean it is always sunshine and rainbows. The two leaders acknowledge that the sides have their differences and separate objectives as well. While they might not agree on everything, however, they say that they are always respectful of one another. And when they reach an impasse, they resort to a time-honored negotiation strategy: compromise.

As an example, Local 12 came to the table asking that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be recognized as a formal holiday. After some discussion, MLK Day was added to the holiday calendar in the collective bargaining agreement. Including the paid holiday imposed a financial impact on the contractors, a point that Fandel acknowledges.

Jeremy Ryan, the contractor association’s executive director, noted that he believes the plumbers are the first trade in Boston to make MLK Day a full holiday. “I think that speaks to the leadership of the PCA and Local 12. It’s a great thing for our industry.”

The contractors proposed increasing the number of miles for which they must compensate plumbers commuting to job sites from 50 to 75. “It was a reasonable ask,” says Fandel, demonstrating another instance of compromise at the negotiations. Among other items included in the agreement were some language changes. For example, to reflect changing attitudes and encourage diversity, “journeyman” will be updated to the gender-neutral term, “journeyperson.”

Both labor and management take the “collective” in collective bargaining to heart. Marani says that it was vitally important to him that the negotiators representing management spoke with one voice for the contractors. To that end, he and Ryan sought and welcomed input from all signatory shops, received a lot of good feedback, and was able to advocate on behalf of contractors of all sizes for a variety of issues.

To make the necessary concessions and move the process forward, both Marani and Fandel say that they tried to consider each other’s perspectives. They also tried to consider the state of the construction industry and project where it might be heading, which is never an exact science. The Boston area has been on a remarkable, long-term tear since 2009. But the industry historically endures both boom and bust cycles. The future may be vague, but the agreement that they hammered out provides continuity and certainty for both sides as they face whatever lies ahead.

During the negotiations, the two groups looked even farther into the future and discussed issues that may not be of concern for another 20 or 30 years. Fandel says that even though it’s difficult to know what the state of the industry will be then, it’s important to start thinking and talking about upcoming concerns for the collective bargaining agreement now.

In the end, both sides considered the bargaining process and the agreement to be successful. “You want the person you’re negotiating with to be of good word,” says Marani. “Tim proved that he was an honest and forthright guy. We tried to be the same way.”

Likewise, Fandel believes that the successful negotiations came down to mutual trust. “That’s why it works so well,” he says. “It’s a covenant between us.”

Helping vets get the services they need

After serving their country as members of the military, many veterans return home and seek careers in the building trades, including plumbing. Quite a few Local 12 members are veterans.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for them to make the transition to civilian life. Vets may not be aware of services that are available to them or know how to access them. That’s where Mike Degeis comes in.

An employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Degeis has been busy connecting with Local 12 members and other construction workers. Based in Bedford at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, he began making the connections about two years ago as part of the VA’s Supported Employment Engage and Keep (SEEK) program. In that time, he has helped about 150 veterans, approximately half of which are in the building trades–including around 35 Local 12 members. One of them is Shawn Ingraham.

“As a veteran you can feel isolated when you come home,” says Ingraham, a fourth-generation Local 12 member. “You realize it’s not what you thought it would be.” A Marine Corps vet like Degeis, he says that the VA rep has been instrumental in providing support and acting as a liaison with the agency.

“Mike put together a group for Local 12 veterans,” Ingraham explains. “It’s been very therapeutic for a lot of us.” Less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population are active-duty military personnel, and a small percentage of those see combat. Ingraham was deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. “We’re part of that fraternity. We need the community, and Mike’s been great at creating it for us,” he adds.

Mike Degeis, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Massachusetts
Mike Degeis, an employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and his son, Qunicy.

When the COVID pandemic hit, the group temporarily stopped its regular meetings. But Ingraham says that Degeis continued to keep in contact with him. “It’s kind of like a buddy check. It goes a long way.”

Degeis says that the VA has long had an education program that helps pave the way for veterans to attend college. But veterans who went directly to work sometimes fell through the agency’s cracks. The relatively new SEEK program is a way to help ensure that vets get the care and resources they need to help them remain healthy and employed. Beyond the support group, Degeis works individually with vets to assist them as necessary.

As Degeis explains, it’s important that they continue to have a mission. If vets encounter some challenges in their lives, it may affect their ability to hold onto a job. That could lead to a spiraling cascade in which they not only lose their job but can no longer afford housing.

“They held themselves in high regard at one point of their lives when they were protecting the USA,” says Degeis. “Now they’re a homeless vet without a job.” Before it gets to that point, he is there to support both the vet and the employer. The agency will do whatever it takes to meet the veteran’s needs and to keep him or her on the job. That might mean mental health services through the VA, or it might mean making arrangements with other medical providers or agencies.

Sometimes, more than jobs and housing are at stake. The SEEK program also helps address the high suicide rates among veterans. “We can’t wait for veterans to be in crisis mode,” Degeis says. “We want to be proactive.”

The agency will also help veterans with less urgent and more practical matters. It might be educational benefits or a VA-backed home loan, for example. Ingraham says that when he went from the Marine Corps into the Reserves, some of his paperwork got mixed up. He discovered the problem when he tried to set up vocational rehab services. Rather than attempting to wade through the bureaucracy, he turned to Degeis who was able to intervene and sort everything out.

“We have a lot of members who are appreciative of the help Mike provides,” says Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent. He has been working with Degeis to help spread the word about the SEEK program. The pair have visited several job sites to make introductions, and Keady has set the VA rep up with general contractors so he could meet with more veterans in the field.

Keady notes that veterans are highly valued in the trades. “They’re generally more mature. They know where they are going in life.” Because of their military experience, vets work well as part of a team–a desirable trait for the kinds of large-scale projects on which Local 12 members often work. “They are natural leaders,” Keady adds. The business agent praises Degeis and the SEEK program, saying that it has been very effective.

Degeis hopes to replicate the success he has had with Local 12 and other building trades and expand the program to other employers. He’d also like to use the example he has set in the Boston area and take the SEEK program national. “We’d like to show other VAs how to do the same thing with their union partners.”

Jenna LeClerc, Local 12 plumbing apprentice Boston

Jenna starts her career with Local 12

Their journey to Local 12

Periodically in The Pipeline we profile Local 12 apprentices to discover the path that led them into the trade and the union. Who and/or what inspired them? Why did they decide to choose plumbing as a career? Why did they want to join Local 12? This issue we showcase two members at either end of their apprentice experience: Jenna LeClerc recently graduated high school and is a first-year apprentice, while Brendan Willett is in his fifth year and will be working towards his journeyman license.

“It’s not so unusual for women to go into the trade now,” says Jenna LeClerc, a first-year apprentice who joined Local 12 in September. Thanks to many pioneers who came before her and changing attitudes in the industry and society, young women such as LeClerc feel empowered to pursue plumbing.

Her dad is a carpenter, and LeClerc says that she was always interested in his projects around the house. She assisted him sometimes and remembers realizing at a young age that she wanted to do work like her father. A good student, LeClerc found that she was more of a tactile learner. “I understood more and caught on faster when I worked with my hands,” she says. “I really like accomplishing something and having something tangible to show for my efforts at the end.”

For high school, she followed her older sister and attended Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School. While there, LeClerc studied many topics, including culinary arts and dental assisting. “I wasn’t necessarily looking at plumbing,” she notes. “But I really enjoyed the class and found the trade intriguing. It turned out to be my favorite. I wanted to learn more.”

Having found her niche, LeClerc ran with it. Taking advantage of Essex Tech’s work-study program, she spent the last two years of high school working in the field with a plumbing company based out of Gloucester. The young student quickly found herself putting in water heaters, fixing leaks, installing sinks, and doing other residential service work. She also got to work on complete house remodels as well as some commercial construction jobs, which gave her a taste of larger projects.

It may be more common for women to enter the trade now, but some people are still surprised by the notion–especially when they see a young female show up at their house to help install a vanity. “Some thought I must have been the daughter of the boss,” LeClerc says, recalling the reactions she got when she was 16 years old and started working with the plumbing company. “They were shocked that I was a student and so young.”  

LeClerc says that she didn’t know much about unions in general, but one of her Essex Tech teachers told her about Local 12 and encouraged her to apply. She was accepted and, after graduating high school in June, the 18-year-old became a member of the union.

Since joining, LeClerc has been working for American Plumbing and Heating. Among the projects she has worked on are the 41-story One Post Office Square office tower in Boston, the multi-use, seven-story building at 100 Hood Park Drive in Charlestown, and the renovation of hospital patient rooms at CHA Somerville Campus. LeClerc says she is enjoying the work, especially the pace at which she and the other plumbers have been working.

As for Local 12’s training center, she says it is obvious that the instructors really like what they are doing and that they are there to help the apprentices. “They want us to succeed,” LeClerc adds.

When she made the decision to become a union plumber, her family and friends were all excited, supportive, and happy for her. “Even though my dad is a carpenter, he is thrilled that I am pursuing plumbing. He told me it was something he wanted to do.” LeClerc says. “Now, we are a well-rounded family with him doing carpentry and me doing plumbing.”

Brendan Willett Local 12 Boston plumbing apprentice

Brendan heeded his grandfather and his uncle

Their journey to Local 12

Periodically in The Pipeline we profile Local 12 apprentices to discover the path that led them into the trade and the union. Who and/or what inspired them? Why did they decide to choose plumbing as a career? Why did they want to join Local 12? This issue we showcase two members at either end of their apprentice experience: Jenna LeClerc recently graduated high school and is a first-year apprentice, while Brendan Willett is in his fifth year and will be working towards his journeyman license.

Growing up in Hanover, Brendan Willett says that he began helping out at his dad’s two businesses, an ice cream shop in Kingston and a garden center in Quincy, when he was a young child. He performed all kinds of duties, but especially enjoyed when he got to work with his hands on projects.

“We were always building some contraption,” Willett explains, and recalls working on an irrigation system to water the flowers at the nursery as an example. 

When his family had a plumbing problem at their house, however, they turned to Brendan’s grandfather, Jake Orlando, to come to the rescue. A licensed plumber and a Local 12 member, Orlando did more than repair the family’s leaky pipes and get their hot water running. He also encouraged Willett to consider becoming a plumber and steered him to the union. In fact, plumbing and Local 12 is something of a family tradition; Willett’s uncle and his uncle’s two sons (Willett’s cousins) are all Local 12 members as well. They were influential in guiding him to the trade.

After his junior year in high school, Willett took a break from serving ice cream and selling shrubs for his father and got a summer job working with a plumber in Carver. He immediately loved it, he says. The work included new construction of single-family homes, largely on Cape Cod. Since it was a one-person shop, Willett got to learn a lot in a short amount of time assisting the plumber.

The two of them handled all of the plumbing for the houses from the basement up. Watching everything come together from start to finish gave him a good sense of how entire plumbing systems work.

“When I went back to school I missed the work,” Willett says.

He next went to work for a shop in Braintree after graduating from high school–literally. “I got my diploma on a Friday, and started work on Monday,” says Willett with a laugh. He also got his apprentice license and signed up for classes. He worked for another couple of shops, but felt like he wasn’t learning much at either the school or at the shops. Then Willett became a Local 12 member.

“The difference between Local 12’s training center and non-union classes is incredible,” he notes, adding that it is much more well-rounded and offers considerably more hands-on opportunities. “The local’s instructors are always available. They’ll do anything for you.” Paying the training center perhaps the highest compliment, Willett says that he hopes to teach there someday.

Since joining Local 12, he has mostly worked for Jeffrey Peabody Plumbing and Heating on new construction of mid-rise apartment complexes. Willett says he hopes to have the opportunity to work on larger jobs such as high-rise office buildings in Boston.

He praises the benefits he receives as a member of the union, and says that even though he is only 24, he appreciates that Local 12 is helping him prepare for retirement. “Anybody with common sense should be thinking about retirement, even at a young age,” Willett says. He notes that he can see the difference that good retirement benefits have made for his grandfather. Both his grandfather and his uncle, Tommy Orlando, were very involved with the union. Tommy served as the president of Local 12. 

Starting when Willett was two, his grandfather and uncle would take him to Local 12’s Christmas party. “Even as a little kid, I was struck by the brotherhood and the camaraderie,” he says. Now that he is a member, Willett has made many friends within the union and gets to experience the camaraderie firsthand. “We have each other’s backs.” 

As he looks to the future, Willett thinks that he may be able to apply the leadership skills he developed while working at his father’s businesses. “I think I’d be a good foreman someday,” he says. “No matter what I do, as a Local 12 member, I know I’ll have a great career.”

Veterans’ benefits for apprentices

Many members of the military pursue careers in the building trades after they complete active duty, and Local 12 counts quite a few vets among its members. There are resources available to support veterans, such as the VA’s SEEK program (see article in this issue). They are also entitled to G.I. Bill payments while they are participating in apprenticeship programs.

People may be aware of G.I. Bill benefits that help returning members of the armed forces attend college. But the military’s educational program extends to trade apprentices as well. Veterans and members of the National Guard and Reserve as well as spouses and dependents of deceased or disabled veterans can apply for financial payments to help support them while they participate in approved apprenticeship programs. Local 12’s training center is a VA-approved education and training program.

The military and the government promote the G.I. Bill program as a way for employers and unions to recruit and retain employees and members. Veterans, meanwhile, can use the funds to help pay their living expenses while they work towards their journeyman licenses.

Helmets to Hardhats is another great resource. The non-profit organization connects returning military service members and veterans with training and career opportunities in the construction industry. Many veterans have found their way to Local 12 through Helmets to Hardhats.

Information, including access to application forms, about apprenticeship for veterans and G.I. Bill benefits is available at the Mass.gov Website.

Local 12 Plumbers Boston training center

Training center back to “normal”

As with nearly everything, the pandemic wreaked havoc with Local 12’s training center. But, after coping with major interruptions and modifications the past two academic years, apprentice classes and other programs at the center have returned, more or less, to regular operations.

The only major concession to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 is that students, instructors, and visitors must wear facemasks in the facility while they are in classrooms. Night classes for journeyman training, which had been temporarily cancelled, have resumed.

“We are trying to get back to normal,” says Rick Carter, the training center’s director. “But I think we are all still in COVID shock. Some people are having a hard time rebooting and returning to normalcy.”

When the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, the training center switched to remote learning. For classes that emphasize hands-on instruction and participation, the model proved to be difficult. Carter says it was not conducive to the kind of high-quality training for which the center is known.

In fall 2020, in-person classes returned. To maximize social distancing, however, the class sizes were reduced to about ten apprentices. That meant the center had to expand its schedule and present more classes to accommodate everyone. Many hand sanitizer stations were installed, the HVAC system was upgraded to improve ventilation, and other modifications were made. It was not ideal, but it was significantly better than conducting virtual classes.

This academic year, the center is back to pre-COVID-sized classes and a regular schedule. Carter says that it’s good to put most of the pandemic-era modifications in the rearview mirror. “Hopefully we never have to go back to that.”

Cambridge Crossing project rendering

Positive outlook as pandemic winds down

The pandemic has affected virtually everybody and everything–including the construction industry. About one year after the viral outbreak turned the world on its head, vaccination rates are rapidly rising, infection levels are decreasing, and the goal of herd immunity is looming in the not-so-distant future.

With the pandemic hopefully on its last legs, there has been much talk about the “new normal,” a concession that there will be lingering, perhaps permanent after-effects. So, what might the regional construction industry look like post-COVID?

Temperature checks, social distancing, and most of the other health and safety protocols that construction sites have adopted will go away. But, according to Local 12 Business Manager Tim Fandel, it’s likely that the sanitizing stations will remain long after the threat of the virus has passed.

Soon after the outbreak shuttered many building projects, Local 12 plumbers were among the first to return to install hand-washing sinks with hot water hookups. At some larger sites, they also installed temporary, functioning toilets to replace porta potties.

“They’re easy to install, it’s a simple change, and they improve health,” Fandel says about the sinks and toilets. “General contractors realize the value of having them, and workers really appreciate them.”

Fandel also believes that the nurses that have become embedded at larger construction sites may remain permanent fixtures. Fostered by the pandemic, they could be part of an overall greater commitment to safety and health. John Cannistraro, Jr., president of GBPCA contractor J.C. Cannistraro, agrees.

“Onsite safety has improved. It’s top of mind for everyone,” he says. 

Just as the pandemic has caused those in the construction industry to rethink health and safety measures, it has forced everyone, including owners, developers, general contractors, architects, and engineers, to step back, reevaluate everything they are doing, and perhaps consider different ways they might work together. Cannistraro thinks that people are now more open to new ideas.

“We’ve all experienced the horror of the pandemic,” he says. “Coming out of it, people are more willing to work as a team. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together.”

As an example, Cannistraro says that his company has been brought in during the pre-construction phase to help shape the architectural and structural design of a project. “It’s an opportunity to advance the industry by reemphasizing our professionalism and demonstrating that skilled labor has a role in reshaping the new economy,” he adds.

Owners and developers recalibrate

While those designing and building projects rethink how they will get the work done, the pandemic may have influenced what type of projects they will be constructing post-COVID. The demand for office buildings, for example, has cooled. With many office employees now working out of their homes, it’s likely that they will use a hybrid model and split their time between their home offices and their company offices when they do return to work.

The demand for luxury condos, another sector that has been fueling the red-hot construction market, has softened a bit as well. But many believe it may just be a momentary blip, as sales and interest have picked up recently. Regardless of the pandemic, the Boston area’s fundamentals remain sound. Higher education, healthcare, and research continue to drive the economy, and the housing supply is limited.

To that end, there is great demand for life science construction projects that is offsetting the reduced demand for new office buildings. And there is an insatiable demand for affordable housing. Fandel adds that bellwether projects in the pipeline, such as Cambridge Crossing, the tower at South Station, Suffolk Downs, and multiple projects in the Seaport, are moving forward and are indicative of the many opportunities that lie ahead. “I’m bullish on the industry and employment for our members,” he says.

Cannistraro is equally optimistic, noting that some of the recalibration in the types of projects getting greenlit may be due as much to the cyclical nature of the construction industry as to COVID. “We are busier than we’ve ever been as far as potential opportunities in a lot of different sectors.”

Brian Doherty Construction Stops COVID program

Industry takes proactive steps to stop COVID

The building trades in the region responded quickly and with serious purpose when the pandemic began to emerge in early 2020.

By mid-March of last year, nearly all construction sites shut down. Before the sites reopened in May, unions representing the trades and affiliated contractors, including Local 12 and the GBPCA, convened to hammer out a comprehensive safety and virus prevention plan. Safeguards they developed and implemented include screening procedures, staggered starts, personal protective equipment requirements, social distancing guidelines, and hand washing stations (which were installed by Local 12 plumbers).

In late December, with the pandemic still raging, the labor unions and their partner contractors took an aggressive step to further protect workers by rolling out Construction Stops COVID. In collaboration with Partners In Health and Harbor Health Services, as well as the cities of Boston and Cambridge, the initiative makes testing, tracing, and treatment available to union construction workers. It is also hoping to offer vaccine distribution. The innovative, proactive program sends a powerful message and demonstrates an abiding commitment to safety and prevention.

“We’re kicking off what we believe will be a national model within our industry and beyond,” said Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions. He made the remarks at an online event to launch Construction Stops COVID that included representatives of participating organizations. The goal of the program, according to Doherty, is “to keep workers and their families safe both on the job and at home.”

“This is an historic initiative and the first of its kind in the nation,” said Mayor Martin Walsh during a presentation at the kickoff event. The mayor took early, decisive action in March 2020 by closing down all construction sites in Boston. A strong advocate for Construction Stops COVID, he noted that it would play an important role in helping the city weather the pandemic and return on the path to normalcy. “We’re setting the highest safety standards in the nation,” Walsh said, adding that efforts such as this have helped Boston rank number one among U.S. cities to recover from the recession caused by the outbreak.

Doherty says that the mayor helped plant the seed for Construction Stops COVID by connecting the building trades with the global public health organization, Partners In Health. “We jumped at the chance. It’s been a great collaboration from the start.” PIH brings health care to the world’s most vulnerable communities, including Rwanda, Liberia, and Haiti. The initiative with the building trades represents the organization’s pilot program to help battle COVID-19 in the U.S.

One of the key ways Construction Stops COVID is helping workers stay healthy and safe is through a network of new, local mini-clinics its partners have strategically established near construction site hubs. The idea is to remove nearly all of the hassle and make it as easy as possible for workers to get testing, participate in tracing efforts, and access other resources. The clinics are located at Bunker Hill Community College, near the Black Falcon Terminal in the Seaport, and in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

“Through this collaboration, we can deliver services at the point of need,” explained Claire Pierre, MD, chief medical officer for Harbor Health Services. The non-profit, public health agency is operating the clinical hubs. “We can remove the barriers of access, transportation, coordination, and everything else,” Pierre added.

Even as vaccination efforts ramp up, COVID testing will remain an important component in controlling and combating the virus. Until herd immunity is attained, it’s still possible for people to become infected, especially essential workers such as those in the construction trades.

“Testing is critical,” asserted Margaret Bordeaux, MD, MPH, research director at the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “We need to have easy, convenient workplace testing.” Bordeaux and her colleagues at the Harvard project were instrumental in recruiting the Construction Stops COVID partners.

“It’s a great idea,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, about Construction Stops COVID. He says that he visited one of the clinics and got a test. “The whole process took five minutes. It couldn’t have been any more efficient and convenient. The great thing is that it is specifically set up for our members and their families.”

PIH is coordinating the public health awareness component of the initiative. It is helping to get the word out about the ways that Local 12 members and others in the building trades can remain vigilant, adopt safe practices, and keep themselves, their families, and their communities healthy. General contractors John Moriarty & Associates, Suffolk, and Turner Construction are also part of the coalition that is supporting Construction Stops COVID.

Maintaining health and safety during a pandemic are important goals in and of themselves. But keeping the construction trades safe and on the job are important to the health of the region’s economy as well.

“We can show the rest of the world how not to just reopen the economy, but to put in the proper controls to give people comfort and safety for themselves and their loved ones,” said Joia Mukherjee, MD, PIH’s chief medical officer.

Construction Stops COVID also reinforces the point that we all have a shared responsibility, and that we all need to play a role in combating COVID.

“We really have to think very differently about what our health means to other people,” said Pierre.