Local 12 Boston Plumbers member with mask

Industry adapts to the new normal

“This is a unique and challenging time,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), referring to the conditions that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on the construction industry. “Our contractors have had to put on new hats. Now they are not just construction and business experts, but also contagious disease and medical health specialists.”

Welcome to the new normal. Once GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers processed and dealt with the initial shutdown of most projects on which they had been working and other immediate effects of the pandemic in mid-March, they then had to figure out how to cope with the longer-term fallout. Like everybody else, they are anxious for a vaccine or treatment to emerge so the virus is no longer a threat. Until then, it’s not exactly business as usual.

A building trades group convened to help prepare for the reopening of construction sites that had been closed in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville (where the bulk of the region’s major projects are based). Among the participants were general contractors, plumbing and other subcontractor reps, and business agents. They met via conference calls, videoconferencing, and other remote means to talk about issues such as safety and hygiene protocols. Discussions centered on CDC and OSHA guidelines and recommendations.

Taking temperatures, staggering starts, and other modifications

Sites began reopening in May, and most have since resumed. So what do they look like? The details vary slightly from project to project, but they typically include a core group of updates and changes. Most of them mirror the kinds of safeguards that can be found at many places where people now gather. These include:

  • Screening procedure – People admitted onto construction sites have to confirm that they do not have a fever by having their temperatures taken. They also have to answer a series of self-identifying questions indicating that they are symptom-free and have not been exposed to anyone with the virus.
  • Staggered starts – Workers from different trades arrive at job sites at different assigned times in the morning so as not to overwhelm the screening process and to prevent large groups from having to congregate in one place.
  • Personal protective equipment – Everyone has to wear a facemask, which sometimes has to be an N95 mask, as well as work gloves. In some cases, face shields are also specified.
  • Social distancing – Where possible, workers are required to remain six feet apart from others. For high-rise jobs, only five people are allowed in service elevators, including the operators, and they are asked to face away from one another.

It may sound like a lot, but those on the ground say that workers at job sites have gotten into a routine and have been able to carry on with their work without too much interruption.

“It’s different, no doubt, but we can adapt,” Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent, says. He notes that when he started, workers at construction sites didn’t always wear hardhats or safety glasses. With regulations and guidelines now universal, nobody gives donning items like that a second thought. “The masks we have to wear are just another piece of PPE,” adds Keady. “It’s a matter of safety. With COVID-19, we have to be aware of the conditions and deal with them to the best of our training.”

One thing that is different is the size of crews. To accommodate social distancing, there are often limits on the number of workers that can be together on a floor or in a space at any one time. According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, project timelines are longer because there are less people doing the work. While almost 100% of the jobs that the contractor had been working on have resumed, Dionne says he has less people in the field.

There is also the extra cost of conducting business. Contractors say that they often have to pay a premium for items such as N95 masks and disinfectant wipes that are in high demand and short supply. There is also the time and energy they have to spend sourcing the items.

There is a new normal at Local 12’s training center as well. With physical classes cancelled, the instructors have shifted to remote learning. The apprentices and teachers have adapted, but the situation is not ideal, says Rick Carter, the center’s director.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s unconventional for us,” Carter says. Much of the curriculum is developed around practical, hands-on instruction presented in a shop setting. Lessons like that do not translate well when presented online.

With the fall session slated to resume in September, Carter is hopeful that at least some of the classes can be held in person. “We don’t want to do remote unless it’s absolutely necessary,” the director says. The training center will keep an eye on how state guidelines progress for getting back in the classroom. It is possible that the session may be a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.

What might the future hold?

The pandemic has not only presented immediate health and safety concerns. It has also wreaked havoc with the economy and may lead to lasting changes that could have an impact on the region’s construction industry. After many years of unprecedented growth and expansion, there could be a pullback on new projects–or not.

“Medium-term, I don’t expect much to change,” says Ed Strickland, president of William M. Collins Company. “All of our contractors have a pretty good backlog of work. Longer-term, the impact remains to be seen.”

Dionne is bullish on the future. “I’m an optimist. I see things bouncing back,” he says. There has been speculation that with so many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, the practice may become more ingrained and the demand for office space may decrease. Dionne isn’t so sure. “I think people want to be in social environments. Yes, people can work from home. But I don’t think we’re wired to work there for the rest of our careers.” Office towers and mixed-use projects that include office space have been driving much of the construction boom in the Boston area.

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, is optimistic as well. “On the residential side, we see a significant lineup of projects and every indication that there will be more to come,” he says. “Talking with our contractors, they are bidding on plenty of new projects.”

Pandemic throws a wrench into building trades

The COVID-19 pandemic that emerged earlier this year turned life upside down for everybody. It brought the economy to its knees and had an impact on virtually every sector, including the construction industry. What had been an especially prolonged and robust boom cycle for the
region’s building trades came to an abrupt halt in mid-March when most major job sites
temporarily closed down.

Nearly all GBPCA contractors suddenly found themselves with little work. And Local 12 plumbers went from essentially full employment to about 80% unemployment almost overnight. Most sites have since reopened, although they have been operating under a new wave of regulations and restrictions.

The pandemic has presented a variety of unique and urgent challenges. For example, Local 12’s training center had to quickly replace in-person classes with remote learning. “In modern times–certainly in my lifetime–this has been unprecedented,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager.

As information about the pandemic started to emerge and evolve, everyone was trying to understand the coronavirus and evaluate its threat. When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh initially ordered the shutdown of construction sites in mid-March, it was unexpected, Fandel says. “As painful and disruptive as it has been,” he adds, “it seems like it was the right call. When we look back, the approach and the level of seriousness that the mayor, governor, and others have given this issue will be validated.”

Along with Boston, Cambridge and Somerville officials also shuttered construction sites around the same time. The three cities account for most of the major building projects in the region. Some construction did continue in other locations. And some public projects and others that were deemed essential remained open in Boston and elsewhere. But the impact from the pandemic response was far-reaching.

Contractors confront COVID fallout

According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, he went from 170 employees down to 50 as projects such as a mixed-use development at Somerville’s Assembly Row closed down. Some work continued in earnest, however.

“We were busier than ever with our office staff,” Dionne says, explaining that employees took advantage of the downtime to focus on upfront work such as coordination and computer design of projects. To accommodate staff members and allow enough room for social distancing, the company is seeking additional office space. Some employees have been working remotely from their homes.

Likewise, designers and budget managers at GBPCA contractor, William M. Collins Company, also decamped to their home offices while a skeleton crew held down the fort at its Braintree headquarters. Ed Strickland, the shop’s president, estimates that he furloughed about 80% of his crew when most of the company’s projects shut down. He credits the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for helping to cover overhead for the employees that remained.

“We didn’t have any income coming in,” Strickland says. “With a three-month gap, we’ve essentially cut out one quarter of our revenue for the year. With the PPP loan, we marched on.”

Training center adjusts

With the pandemic taking hold, the training center cancelled its classes in the middle of March. “We had to scramble to figure out what to do after we shut the doors,” Fandel says. “We had to shift gears quickly.”

According to Rick Carter, the training center’s director, he and his staff had been talking about introducing remote learning options for a while. Like many initiatives that may have otherwise taken months or years but were rapidly deployed due to the conditions imposed by the pandemic, the center began offering electronic classes by early April for the following session.

The United Association (UA), the national organization to which Local 12 belongs, has been working with the “Blackboard” online learning system and was promoting remote learning well before the pandemic. Local 12’s training center team was able to refer to UA instructional videos about how to use the system and other resources.

After a crash course in remote teaching, the center’s instructors moved online. “They worked tirelessly transferring info and getting up to speed,” Carter says. The center got the remote hours approved as fulfilling apprenticeship requirements. Thanks to the staff’s hard work, Local 12’s apprentices were able to complete the academic year by the end of June, and the fifth-year apprentices were able to graduate on time in May.

Local 12 Boston Training Center annex shop

New annex opens at training center

To support its growing apprentice program, Local 12 reclaimed a building on its property and converted it into a classroom and shop. The expansion, which opened in September, allows the local’s training center to accommodate more apprentices. At 3,000 square feet, the annex’s shop is considerably larger than the existing ones in the main building. It gives instructors and apprentices a sizeable, flexible space in which to teach and develop skills.

Using a modular system, the shop features a variety of workstations that are mounted on wheels and can easily be moved as needed into or out of the space or rearranged depending on the topic being covered and the number of apprentices in the class. There is also a large electronic whiteboard that the instructors can use.

Local 12 Boston Training center annex shop workstation
Modular workstations in the new shop allow for lots of flexibility.

The classroom, which also includes a whiteboard, allows instructors to present lessons in a traditional educational setting. “Then we can walk students next door into the shop and put what they’ve learned in the classroom into practice,” says Rick Carter, the Training Center’s director.

Carter says that in addition to the apprentice classes, the annex will be used for journeymen service classes at night. Because of the shop’s flexibility and size, “everyone will have plenty of elbow room to build projects,” he adds. “It’s important that everybody gets on the tools and gets the attention they deserve. With the new and existing spaces, we could have three different shop classes running simultaneously if need be.”

After touring the annex, Patrick O‘Toole, VP at GBPCA contractor American Plumbing & Heating and a member of Local 12’s Apprentice Committee, said that he was impressed with the size and scope of the space. “The shop’s modules will enable apprentices to get hands-on training in various aspects of the trade such as piping, finish installation, and rigging,” he notes. “We want to be sure that our students continue to get the best training available.”

Joseph O’Leary, senior estimator for GBPCA contractor TG Gallagher, also serves on the Apprentice Committee and says that the he was pleased to see hybrid HVAC systems in the new shop. “Our members now have the ability to be qualified and licensed in the installation of energy-efficient heat pumps and associated systems,” says O’Leary. “This will expand our expertise.”

Local 12 Boston Training Center Expansion classroom
The annex expansion also includes a new classroom.

With the additional space afforded by the new shop, Local 12 developed a water heater lab in one of the training center’s original shops. It includes Bradford White units on which students can train. The manufacturer partnered with Local 12 to provide the water heaters. “We’ve grown our service work a lot,” says Harry Brett, Local 12’s business manager. “Now we will be able to do service training.”

With over 350 apprentices enrolled in the training center, the program has grown more than 60% over the last twelve years. “We needed to expand the program,” Carter says, noting that the center hired an additional instructor (see story elsewhere in this issue about Mike Lydon) as well as built the new classroom and shop.

Construction throughout the region remains strong. As a result, small- to mid-sized shops have been growing, and large contractors have been getting bigger. Also, new contractors have been signing on with Local 12.

“We are the feeder system for the local,” Carter adds. “And there is high demand for apprentices.”

Mike Lydon Local 12 training center instructor

Mike Lydon joins Training Center faculty

When Mike Lydon was about twelve years old, he began accompanying his father, who was a welding teacher, to work on Saturdays at the Local 12 Training Center. Many decades later, Lydon is following in his dad’s footsteps.

With the region’s construction industry booming and demand growing for union plumbers, Local 12’s Training Center has been expanding. To accommodate an enrollment that has surged to more than 300 apprentices, the center brought Lydon on in August as its fourth instructor.

His father was instrumental in sending Lydon on the long journey that eventually landed him back at the Training Center. In addition to teaching apprentices the art and science of welding, Jim Lydon, Sr. was a Local 12 plumber and served as a business agent for the union in the 1990s. Mike says that his dad was nurturing and supportive and didn’t so much push him into the trade as gently persuade him.

After going through the apprentice program, himself, Lydon went to work for GBPCA contractor J.C. Cannistraro. He worked his way up to foreman and remained with the company for 20 years.

Lydon would follow happenings at the Training Center and developed friendships with many of its instructors. “In the back of my mind, I always thought becoming an instructor might be something to pursue,” he says. But he followed other paths. For example, Lydon has been the plumbing inspector in the town of Abington for the past 25 years.

In 2006, he joined his brother, Jim Lydon, Jr., to form The Lydon Companies. Jim had already established Lydon Millwright Services, and Mike came on board to expand the business and develop a mechanical services division. He says his father was thrilled to see his sons working together and to see the union-affiliated company working with Local 12.

As with many businesses, the Great Recession threw a curveball at The Lydon Companies, and the shop eventually closed. Mike went back to work as a foreman for J.C. Cannistraro in 2014. While there, he led teams working on projects for Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital. He also became the company’s apprentice coordinator. In that capacity, Lydon worked closely with Local 12’s Training Center as a liaison representing the apprentices working on all of the large contractor’s many projects.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with apprentices,” Lydon says. “The position was a natural for me.”

When the Training Center put out the call for a new instructor earlier this year, Lydon seized the opportunity. He initially taught classes in financial literacy for first-year apprentices and water supply for the third-year group.  Lydon says that shifting gears in his career and tackling the role of a teacher has been enjoyable and rewarding, but also challenging.

“I have great respect for the other instructors at the center,” he notes. “It’s a lot of work.”

Lydon says that there are plenty of resources on which he can draw, such as United Association guidelines and materials, as he maps out his classes. But, he adds, instructors are given plenty of leeway to add their own input and personality as they develop and present their daily lesson plans. Lydon is getting used to incorporating technology such as electronic whiteboards, online content, and PowerPoint presentations to his classes. The goal, he says, is to keep the material fresh and engaging for apprentices. He also tries to make the classes as interactive as possible.

“Mike is rising to the challenge,” says Rick Carter, the Training Center’s director. “He is a great addition to our team and brings a wealth of real-world, hands-on experience to his classes.”

For the second session, Lydon is teaching a class about hot water to fourth-year apprentices. A second class, “Standard of Excellence,” is geared to the first-year group. Among the topics covered are the history of the labor movement and the history and evolution of Local 12.

“I’m learning myself,” Lydon says, as he dives into the material and prepares his classes. He finds the union story especially fascinating. “I love the work.”

Apprentice draws on her past experience

Third-year Local 12 apprentice Kerri Reppucci took an interesting journey into the industry. 

For nine years she was a mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) coordinator and developed blueprints for commercial construction projects. Now Reppucci is on crews doing the kind of plumbing that she once designed. Her background gives her a unique perspective among apprentices.

Unlike many people who find their way to Local 12, Reppucci didn’t know anybody who was a plumber or worked in other construction trades, nor was she exposed to or had any inclination to join the industry as she was growing up. She knew the owner of EHK Adjorlolo & Associates, a building information modeling (BIM) services company based in Norwood, who hired her soon after she graduated high school and trained her in all aspects of virtual design and construction.

The learning curve was steep, but Reppucci became proficient as an MEP coordinator and developed drawings using computer-aided design (CAD). She simultaneously learned about plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire protection systems as well as the overall building trades industry. “In time, I ran coordination meetings,” Reppucci says. She recalls sitting across the table from GBPCA contractors such as E. M. Duggan and Valante Mechanical.

While she enjoyed the work, Reppucci says she eventually wanted to change careers and began thinking about being on the other side of the construction industry. An avid equestrian and an active, outdoorsy person, she sometimes found it a struggle to sit behind a computer and be confined to an office. “When I went to job sites, I loved being out there,” recalls Reppucci.

Interestingly, it was her boss who helped steer her away from his company. He would often talk to Reppucci about her personal five-year plan and encouraged her to envision where she saw herself. She realized she wanted to explore a career in the construction trades.

Coincidentally, Reppucci met a plumber who discovered the MEP coordination work she did and asked her if she ever though about getting into the field. When she expressed interest, he offered her a part-time position working for him on Saturdays. For about a year, Reppucci learned the basics of plumbing on residential service jobs.

“I liked it from the start,” she says. Reppucci decided to actively pursue becoming a full-time plumber. “It was scary to switch careers. But I knew I had to pull the trigger.”

She applied to Local 12, but didn’t initially get in. The plumber with whom she had been working on Saturdays offered her an apprenticeship position and she took it, although Reppucci says that she didn’t give up on her dream to get into the union. She knew the pay would be better as well as the benefits such as health insurance and a pension. She also knew that Local 12-affiliated contractors did the type of large-scale projects on which she wanted to work.

In 2018, Reppucci reapplied and was accepted into Local 12. She has been working for American Plumbing and Heating on projects such as a new Children’s Hospital building and the expansion of TD Garden’s concourse.

“When I first started, it was so exciting,” she enthuses. “It was almost surreal. I would ask myself, ‘Is this happening?’ ”

Reppucci says her many years as an MEP coordinator have been serving her well. Her ability to look at drawings and know exactly what they mean has helped her on the job. At the same time, she adds, she is learning a different side of plumbing that she couldn’t get in an office.

“Pipe is much easier to manipulate in your hands than in a drawing,” Reppucci notes.

She is currently on the American crew at the mixed-use development known as Parcel K in Boston’s Seaport district. The 500,000-square-foot project includes a 12-story residential building with 304 apartments and a 12-story Hyatt Place hotel with 294 rooms. Parcel K will also include an underground parking garage, office space, and ground-level retail shops and restaurants. Reppucci is working on the hotel side of the project.

Before she came to Local 12, Reppucci had taken classes for open-shop apprentices. She says that the union’s training center, which emphasizes hands-on opportunities in its shops, is a completely different experience. Whereas before, she mostly sat at a desk and read along as teachers lectured, now she is putting theory into practice.

“We’re doing things that help me really understand plumbing,” says Reppucci. “I’m a tactile learner. I need to do it to understand it. The instructors are great.”

When she gets older, Reppucci says that she may want to return to MEP coordination. But for now she is thrilled to be learning a trade that she loves. She looks forward to a long career and says that she is bullish on the plumbing industry.

“People will always need water, sinks, toilets, and heat,” explains Reppucci. “The trade won’t go away.”