NATIONAL VICE PRESIDENT’S REPORT – Utility Workers Deliver, No Matter What

John Duffy, National Vice President

As utility workers, we all know the challenges of providing reliable electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater, to millions of Americans 24/7. Like anything that is reliably provided and is at one’s fingertips, the general public gives little thought to what it takes on a human level, to provide these vital, life-giving commodities.

During hurricanes, massive snowstorms, and other emergencies, when the general public is ordered off the roads due to treacherous conditions, utility workers are expected to report to work like any other day. Even getting to the workplace, before stepping out of their vehicles, they are put in harm’s way. Once at work, they are in an even more dangerous situation, working with high voltage in power plants, sub-stations, overhead lines, underground manholes, high-pressure natural gas, and with water systems.

Every day is an adventure

With earthquakes, our members are out responding to dangerous gas main breaks and resetting valves to restore service. In disasters, UWUA members do not know just how dangerous the conditions on the ground will be once they arrive. The same is true for many of our members whose task is to protect pumping stations and rebuild the water infrastructure after wildfires.

Many other utility workers are an important part of an effective response to disasters. Meter readers, for example, are deployed to do damage assessment and make the area safe. Workers in call centers are flooded with calls, pushed to the limit as the first line of contact for those who lose vital services.

First Responders during 9/11

Even when our nation was under attack on September 11, 2001, Utility Workers responded along with other first responders. A gas mechanic out of UWUA Local 1-2 who was dispatched to the scene to shut off the gas service, had to dive under a fire truck in order to avoid being crushed by one of the falling towers. That mechanic, after finding his way back to his work location through all of that smoke dust and chaos, showered and went back down to ground zero. That is just one example of the many selfless acts of heroism performed by Utility Workers all over this country.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, often referred to as a “Superstorm,” the UWUA produced a whitepaper to bring to light the vital work performed by utility workers and to draw attention to the understaffing and overreliance on contractors throughout the utility industry. While that whitepaper was not expected to be a magic bullet, it still receives inquiries from the press and various organizations, seven years after its release.

Now, with natural disasters increasing in intensity and frequency, no one could ever have imagined that our members who respond to these disasters would now have to perform that dangerous work and deal with the deadly COVID-19 virus at the same time. Over 350 of our members have fallen seriously ill due to contracting COVID-19, and sadly, 13 have succumbed to the virus. Naturally, our thoughts and prayers go out to all those members and their families.

Telling our pandemic story

With this unprecedented, invisible hazard added to an already dangerous job, the UWUA has begun the process of producing another whitepaper. This one will bring attention to the now increased danger and stress facing utility workers while they perform an already dangerous job. This new whitepaper will focus on the dangers encountered in the field, but also the difficulty experienced by our members working from home, while dealing with remote learning for their school-age children. The UWUA is interviewing members about their experiences in working through this pandemic. We have captured what most utility workers have experienced during these trying times. However, there are no doubt still some unique experiences that we have yet to capture and add to this very important project.

To all our members who may have an exceptional story about working through the pandemic, please contact your local leadership. They will, in turn, contact their respective UWUA National Representative to set up an interview. The identity of all members will be kept confidential.

Much thanks to every Utility Worker for your continued acts of heroism.