Merrimack Valley recovery: Phase II

WHEN A NATURAL GAS DISASTER CAUSED EXPLOSIONS and fires throughout Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in September 2018, GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers were among the first to mobilize for the recovery efforts. Some 1,200 mechanics fanned out across the communities and helped restore service to about 8,500 Columbia Gas customers.

At first, the recovery teams replaced all boilers, hot water heaters, and other appliances with new fixtures. With winter fast approaching, however, a decision was made to temporarily repair appliances and fixtures, when possible, rather than replace them. That allowed the plumbers to proceed more quickly and get every household and business back up and running with heat and hot water by February 1, 2019.

When the initial recovery was deemed complete, a contingent of Local 12 plumbers remained on site to troubleshoot and provide service as necessary. In early April, the second phase of the recovery began, and plumbers returned to replace the fixtures that they had initially repaired.

Why replace all of the appliances if they were functioning? “The excess gas could have adversely effected the fixtures,” explains Jim Vaughan, Local 12 business agent. “They could fail down the line.” Vaughan coordinated both phases of the Local’s recovery efforts in the Merrimack Valley.

The phase II team included four Local 12-affiliated contractors: William F. Lynch Co. of Worcester, Harry Grodsky Company of Billerica, Jeffrey Peabody Plumbing & Heating of Danvers, and Glionna Plumbing & Heating Services of Saugus. According to Vaughan, Glionna had been part of the recovery’s first phase when it was a non-union shop.

“They saw Local 12 in action,” he says, referring to the massive response of the union in the wake of the disaster. “That motivated them to join us.”

According to Mike Glionna, the shop’s owner, affiliating with Local 12 has opened up new opportunities. “Everybody knows it’s tough out there,” he says, referring to the scarcity of trained mechanics amid the region’s booming construction industry. “Now I have access to manpower for bigger and more diverse jobs.” Among the projects on which the contractor is working are three restaurants at Logan Airport.

“We are happy to have Glionna as a new signatory contractor,” Vaughan adds.

During the second phase of the Merrimack Valley recovery, the general contractor worked with the plumbers and arranged assessments of the customers requiring new appliances. The plumbing contractors then made arrangements to procure and install clothes dryers, water heaters, boilers, and other fixtures. Many of the replacements involved older gas boilers. Unlike the initial recovery phase during the winter, the plumbers could temporarily leave customers without heat in the late spring and summer without causing much discomfort. Hot water, however, remained a priority throughout the process.

The second phase ended in late July. With the recovery program over, Vaughan says that around 18,000 appliances were replaced in total. “Now that we can look back, the numbers are wild,” he notes.

There is another wild statistic to consider, according to the business agent: There were 92 plumbing inspectors on site during the recovery process.

“They are the unsung heroes in this,” says Vaughan. Considering the daunting task they faced, the chaos that they endured, and the urgent need that the emergency required, he adds, “I don’t think the inspectors got the credit they deserved.”

The crisis may be over, but that doesn’t mean the plumbers will completely disappear from Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

“We will still be on call,” Vaughan says. “We need to make sure everything works, especially during a cold snap.”

Andrew DeAngelo of Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association

PCA hires director of public affairs

In July, the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association hired Andrew DeAngelo for the new director of public affairs position. His responsibilities will concentrate on external matters with a focus on legislative issues and community outreach.

Representing GBPCA contractors and the plumbing industry, DeAngelo will be dealing with regulatory initiatives and pending legislation such as paid family medical leave, wage theft, and the medical gas and drain cleaning bills. Among his duties, DeAngelo will be spending a lot of time at the State House where he will meet with lawmakers to advocate for the industry. He will also be the organization’s liaison with the state’s Plumbing Board.

DeAngelo will be visiting and interacting with technical colleges, high school trade schools, and other educational institutions as well as municipal and social service organizations to promote and support the value of plumbing as a career.

“Andrew knows how to engage groups and is an expert in community outreach,” says Jeremy Ryan, GBPCA’s executive director.“

Ideally suited for the job, the paths that DeAngelo has taken seemed to have been leading him to the GBPCA position. He grew up in a union household and, thanks to his father, has always been interested in the building trades. When he was younger, DeAngelo learned to work with his hands from his dad, a recently retired electrician and member of IBEW Local 103. He attended UMass Amherst to pursue his other interests, public service and politics.

After graduating, DeAngelo combined his interests and worked for Boston’s Office of Workforce Development as a transitional employment supervisor.

“The job looped me back with the building trades,” he explains, describing his role overseeing crews of court-involved youth at construction sites for Habitat for Humanity and Boston Planning & Development Agency properties. In addition to helping the participants get on-the-job training, he worked with them as a life coach.

The construction industry figured prominently in his next position with the Operation Exit program, which is run in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, the Boston Center for Youth and Families, the Boston Public Health Commission, the Boston Police Department, and Building Pathways. DeAngelo worked with at-risk individuals who enrolled in an intensive three-week course that introduced them to the building trades.

That led to a similar position working directly for Building Pathways. As its project coordinator, he oversaw the day-to-day needs of the training program and established relationships with the training directors, business agents, and business managers of the area’s building trades, including Local 12.

“We couldn’t have asked for somebody with a better background,” says Ryan. “Andrew has been helping the construction industry as a whole. Now he will be focusing on plumbing contractors. Andrew will help raise the profile of the PCA, not just internally, but with the community at large.”

He returned to Local 12

In 2001, when he was 18 years old, Steve Ferro joined Local 12. The industry and the economy at large were booming. He immediately began working for GBPCA contractor E.M. Duggan as an apprentice and remained there until he got his journeyman license in 2006 and beyond. Still in his 20s, he became a foreman and was running jobs for the shop.

“Honestly, I thought I’d be with Duggan for the rest of my career,” Ferro says. Fate had other ideas, however.

The boom times ended, projects became scarcer, and in 2009 he was let go. Collecting unemployment got old quickly. Not one to sit idle, Ferro took action.

“I’m a licensed plumber,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was told it’s a license to work.” So Ferro got to work—by opening his own shop. He hired a small crew and started doing basic residential plumbing. The entrepreneur moved on to small restaurant jobs such as B. Good in Swampscott and Kelly’s Roast Beef in his hometown of Revere.

Through diligent work, S. Ferro Plumbing and Heating developed a great reputation. The shop generated good word-of-mouth and positive reviews. In 2012, it was named as a preferred contractor on Angie’s List. Referrals increased and opportunities for larger jobs started coming Ferro’s way. He knew the business needed to grow.

“I had the knowledge. I had the drive. I had the skills,” Ferro says. “But I didn’t have the plumbers.” That’s when he started thinking about returning to Local 12, but this time as a contractor.

“It’s a trend we’ve been seeing,” says Frank Amato, recruitment specialist for Local 12. “It’s very difficult for smaller contractors to find qualified plumbers today. But we have them. When shops sign on with Local 12, they have access to a huge pool of trained mechanics and can quickly staff up for virtually any project.”

That’s one reason why shops like S. Ferro Plumbing and Heating are joining the union. Another reason: A few years ago, the local established a new residential division and negotiated a lower rate for the specialized work. That enables contractors to work with Local 12 plumbers on residential projects such as the new construction of mid-rise, wood-frame apartment buildings.

Now, Ferro is able to handle jobs such as a 30-unit apartment building in Brighton and a 40unit condominium complex in Jamaica Plain. Affiliating with Local 12 has also allowed him to work on 100% union jobs such as installing gas piping for boilers at Harvard University and fitting out a Chick-fil-A restaurant in downtown Boston. General contractors and developers appreciate how quickly, efficiently, and precisely Ferro is able to tackle projects because of his Local 12 connection.

While he welcomes the new work, Ferro hasn’t abandoned his smaller residential customers. “We’ll still fix Mrs. Smith’s sink,” he says. “We are very diverse. It’s good for the plumbers who are working for me, because they get to do everything.”

Ferro would like to become even more diverse and move into larger commercial work as well. With Local 12’s support, the goal is achievable.

There are other advantages to being a signatory contractor with the union. For example, his employees are earning a decent wage and getting good benefits. Ferro used to offer his own benefits program, but found the administrative work to maintain it confusing and time consuming. Now, Local 12 maintains the benefits package.

“I’m developing a great team with Local 12’s help,” Ferro says. “The plumbers who work with me are happy. I’m happy. The future looks bright.”