Maintenance Workers, Plumbers, Others Kept City Afloat and Alive During Recent Record Rains
By Jacob Bourne, Contributing Writer
The nearly-month-long parade of cyclones that struck vast swaths of California in December and January claimed 22 lives and cost the state an estimated $1 billion (at least) in damage resulting from flooding, high winds, downed trees, and landslides. The disaster set records in several regions of the state, including San Francisco, which saw its second-wettest day on record, with 5.46 inches falling downtown on New Year’s Eve.
While most Bay Area residents hunkered down and tended to their properties amid rising water levels and power outages, roughly 3,000 SF Building Trades members who do public-sector maintenance work were out on the job in full force. They fanned out across the City and throughout the Bay Area, toiling through the storms in often-dangerous conditions to help keep disaster at bay.
A Profound But Too-Often-Unnoticed Contribution
In many cases, members of the private-sector workforce are sent home during inclement weather the same way they were, for instance, during the pandemic. Conversely, during such emergencies, public sector workers are called directly to the front lines to deal head-on with the adversities.
“Public-sector trades members function almost like first responders during these events,” said Field Representative Vince Courtney of Laborers Local 261. “There are hazards everywhere, and people die. Elected officials and union representatives need to understand the contributions of our men and women who are out there trying to make things safer and eliminate as many hazards as possible.”
City maintenance workers, including members of Local 261, U.A. Local 38, and IFPTE Local 21, performed essential work during the storms. When it comes to the SF Building Trades’ overall contributions to the City and the region, a lot of attention goes to big-ticket infrastructure projects involving bridges, tunnels, and mass transit, or major housing, office, and entertainment developments. Meanwhile, the equally valuable daily contributions of maintenance workers often go unnoticed, said Courtney.
But without their efforts, communities affected by the storms’ destruction would be unable to recover.
Consider the following example. Because San Francisco is the only coastal city in California with a combined sewer system that collects and treats both wastewater and storm water in the same network of pipes, the torrential rains tested the limits of the sewer system’s capacity. Thanks to a team of Local 38 members who work for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), catch basins were kept clear and the system up and running, with no disruption in water service.
Working Long Hours Without Complaint to Mend the City
Toby Price, Local 261 member and section supervisor at Golden Gate Park, said the relentless storms meant that his crew couldn’t take a break from unblocking storm drains and clearing downed trees and debris from roadways and walking paths. He said that concern for worker safety during the heaviest downpours and the highest winds made it challenging to address significant public safety concerns in the small windows of relative calm that would emerge amid the onslaught.
The scene at Golden Gate Park, like in many parts of the City, was of an urban landscape utterly transformed by the destructive power of water and wind. The park’s many meadows were transformed into lakes, with the ground so saturated that towering trees could no longer cling to the earth. As a San Francisco native and someone whose job it is to care for the landscape, Price said that seeing the City’s timeless beloved trees go down was heartbreaking.
But Price said he felt incredibly lucky to be working alongside crews of dedicated laborers, plumbers, and heavy equipment operators, who, on one occasion, worked until 7 p.m. only to return at 6:30 a.m. the next day to finish the job — without complaints.
“It was really inspiring to see how our team put in the effort to get the job done,” Price said. “These people barely had time to sleep and just went out there every day with a great attitude, considering what we had to face.”
Another Benefit of Working Union: The Safety Factor
Price said that union membership is critical when working in hazardous conditions like the storms because workers know they’ll be given the proper equipment to do their jobs and that safety will be treated as top-priority.
Local 261 laborer Dan Feerick said that it’s part of the union’s collective bargaining agreement that members will be provided meaningful work to do in other areas even during inclement weather. For Feerick, who usually works in graffiti removal, it meant the opportunity to earn overtime by filling sandbags and loading them into SF residents’ vehicles near the Department of Public Works maintenance yard off Cesar Chavez Street.
For almost a week, Feerick worked long days from morning to evening distributing bags to the long lines of residents waiting anxiously for a stopgap to protect their properties.
Worsening storms due to climate change could mean more overtime for workers like Feerick in the future. Courtney said that SF Building Trades leadership is exploring a reform that could enable the dispatching of workers right out of the hiring halls to fill essential duties promptly and safely.