Working as a carpenter during pandemic

Eugene DSA’s Labor Committee is doing a series of worker profiles, to give a face to the current situation and show how people’s lives are changing. Questions are borrowed from the Working People podcast. Our first interview is with a local carpenter who took a voluntary layoff.

Tell us about what’s been happening with you, your loved ones, your community, your job, your coworkers, your organization, etc. 

Here in Oregon many workplaces are participating in the “stay-at-home” order. I work as a carpenter on a big job at the University of Oregon. Construction has been deemed an “essential service” during the self isolation period. I found that it was almost impossible to practice social distancing on the jobsite. There was some effort being made to clean handrails and provide sanitizer, but on a jobsite we have to work in close proximity with others. There are too many situations that make social distancing impossible such as, team lifting, riding an elevator or working in a confined space. 

The option was provided to me to take a voluntary lay off. I’m lucky that I was able to take the offer. I don’t think it’s worth risking one’s life to build a new building for a currently closed university. 

What challenges have you been facing during all of this (physical, psychological, economic, social, etc)? Are you being forced to work in unsafe conditions? Have you been laid off and trying to get unemployment? 

The working conditions were definitely unsafe. In general unless there is an organized pressure from workers to improve the safety nothing will be done about the issue. The general contractor makes concessions towards safety in regards to insurance cost. They say explicitly that they can’t afford workplace injuries. I don’t think they can be held accountable for illness due to a pandemic, so they only address the issue to the extent that there is pressure from the state or a union. There is no place on the job to eat lunch, there’s typically only one or two hand washing stations for hundreds of tradesmen.  

I’m lucky in that I am a union member. My insurance is tied to our union fund rather than my employer so I won’t  lose my insurance for at least a few months. I’m worried about what could happen after that. I am also worried about my co-workers, most of them are in a much more difficult position than I am. I have a partner that I can be insured through, I have little debt, and no family. 

Nearly all of my co-workers have continued to work, no doubt because they have no choice. Their families have always come before their own health and safety. It’s a sad reality of working in construction. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs a person can do.  

Furthermore those who are unlucky enough to be without a union are in a much more difficult position. The pay is typically about 30-40% less and most employers provide no insurance at all. Those folks can’t stop work and if they get sick they risk losing everything if they are forced to seek medical care. It’s a truly difficult situation.  

Personally I’ve been using my time away from work to do the things that are most important in life. I’ve been working with my local DSA chapter to reach out to others and help. I’m gardening, reading, and fishing. We could all slow down quite a bit and enrich our lives so much. I wish everyone could have that experience. It’s just too bad it takes a crisis to see these things. We all deserve happiness and leisure, it is a human right

What do you think people around the country don’t know/understand about people in your situation? What do you think they need to know?

I am afraid that there are those that will use this issue as another front for the culture wars. I don’t think that everyone takes public health seriously. This will be another situation that will further the class divide in this country. A very few people stand to make a tremendous profit from this crisis.  We should all ask ourselves “who’s lining their pockets right now?” because those people are our greatest threat. Most of the media will not hold them accountable. It’s up to us.

What are you, your family, community, coworkers, etc. doing to address these (or other) issues? What do you think needs to be done? Do you have any advice to offer people who are listening who may be in similar situations?

Construction is NOT AN ESSENTIAL INDUSTRY! Unless you are constructing an emergency medical facility there is simply no reason to risk your life for your job. In fact even if you are building an emergency medical facility, it isn’t for you. It’s for a private corporation to profit from your precarious position.  If there is one thing I could tell all workers everywhere it’s to get organized! Talk to each other, make plans, make strategies, stand together not apart. 

Are there any final words you want to share? Any lessons/thoughts you want to share or emotions you just want to vent? 

To all the essential workers out there, we see you, we hear you. If this situation has taught us anything it’s that we are nothing without our grocery clerks, nurses, doctors, growers, pickers, child care providers, janitors, teachers and drivers. We in the building trades should stand in solidarity with them. The long decline of workplace organizing needs to stop right here. Organize for the future!