Throughout the COVID pandemic the title of essential worker was liberally applied to various individuals whose occupations companies, the government, and society could not afford to have stay home. These occupations included the obvious police, fire, paramedics, and hospital personnel, as well as utility workers. In addition to the obvious occupations, others were included like gas station clerks and grocery workers. It was clear that during the pandemic, society could not afford to have these workers not on the job, no matter the risks because they all provide services essential for life.
For years the UWUA has been making the case for utility workers to be included in the category of first responders, just like police, fire, and paramedics. Over the past years, utility workers’ response to natural or man-made disasters, including the pandemic, highlighted the essential nature of our work. Wherever disasters occur there is a utility worker on the scene alongside other first responders amidst perilous conditions to mitigate these disasters.
Some people might be surprised to learn utility workers face hurdles doing their jobs in places where there is a state of emergency. It can be as simple as traveling to and from work in their own personal vehicles. Paramedics, police officers and firefighters benefit from first responder status; utility workers, however, not having this designation, are treated like average citizens and can be restricted from travel during emergencies. This became an issue during Super Storm Sandy when utility workers could not travel to and from work unimpeded and had to wait in line for fuel with others, delaying emergency response.
Any delay of a utility worker’s response to these emergencies can be life-threatening to not only the public but to other first responders responding to these emergencies. As recent as a winter ice storm in February 2023 in Michigan, a fireman responding to arcing and sparking wires was electrocuted by a downed wire before utility workers could respond. This is a story that, unfortunately, can be recounted across the county where first responders have arrived at an emergency scene before utility workers.
Following the delays in response to Super Storm Sandy in 2012, Local 1-2 began pushing to have New York state laws restricting utility worker travel during emergencies changed. For over a decade, Local 1-2 leadership advocated for change and continued to push for it despite two vetoes from then-Governor Cuomo. Finally, Local 1-2 found success after working with current New York Governor Kathy Hochul and her staff.
In December 2022, an important new law signed by Governor Hochul recognizes the role utility workers play in helping communities return to normal by exempting them from disaster-related travel bans.
Local 1-2 was crucial to the passage of legislation that will better protect its members when they’re working to respond during man-made and natural disasters. The law clarifies utility workers’ role in the face of increasingly extreme weather and recognizes the critical skills and services utility workers provide when communities face tragedy.
According to the New York law, “The role of utility and other workers is a critical component to emergency preparedness and response. Some communities have experienced long-term power and communications outages during recent storms in no small part because utility personnel were barred from physically accessing the electric and communications infrastructure that needed repair.”
This was a hard-fought victory for Local 1-2 members and may well be the first legislation of its kind. While we as utility workers inherently know the importance of our work, this law is an important recognition by the state of New York.
Elsewhere across the country, there are efforts underway by other locals to protect UWUA members doing their jobs in other ways. Both Local G-555 and Local 270 are working to pass legislation in Ohio that makes it a felony offense to assault a utility worker. For Local 270, the legislation is unfortunately in response to a specific incident where a member was shot while working late at night in Cleveland.
Utility Workers must push more states to provide the clarity to help our members do their jobs and keep them safe on the job. We are committed to advocating for these kinds of policies where they are necessary and fully stand behind locals working to make changes like these that benefit all members.