Features, Health and Safety, New York

Creating the Process for a New Norm

May 14, 2020

By Ben Kimmel

Weekday mornings usually consist of rush hour traffic and crowds of people climbing on and off buses and trains. The subways are usually packed, and the sidewalks are filled with pedestrians that weave their way through the crowds to make it to work on time.

Most mornings begin with a cup of coffee and a newspaper beneath my arm as I rush out the door to make the bus. This was the usual weekday scene before the shutdown.  All of this has recently changed. Most of the businesses are closed. There is hardly any traffic and there is no one on the roads, except for the essential few that are fortunate to have a job.

All else is shut down in New York City. The commercial office buildings are operating with skeleton crews. Construction was put to a halt. Businesses have closed their doors and their employees have been directed to file for unemployment. Apparently, the unemployment office seems to be a busy place to work. This leads us to wonder what happens next.

Everyone is eager to get back to work. We all want to hear the news that bad times are behind us. We want to know the good times are up ahead. However, safe measures require safe plans. The process of reopening is not simple. There are questions that need to be answered and details that need to be discussed:

  • What measures can we take to reduce the possible spread of infection? 
  • How can we create and maintain a safe working environment?
  • What plans can we incorporate into our daily routine that will allow us to reopen safely?

These are all questions that need to be answered before going forward. The fact remains that although the numbers of Covid-19 infections are slowing down, they can easily spike if we fail to proceed with caution.

Nevertheless, financial fears are on the rise. There have been layoffs and furloughs which create anxious times for anxious people. We have never seen anything like this in our lifetime. Furthermore, I have never had to file for unemployment in my life, but the same as Bob Dylan once sung, “The times they are a-changin.”

In an effort to gain a sense of clarity and understanding of what people are thinking, I reached out to some fellow workers to see how Covid-19 was affecting them. The opinions ranged from concerned to dismissive. There were some that were infected and some that denied the virus existed. In one conversation, I listened to a man claim the virus wasn’t even real. “It’s just the flu” were his exact words. He called the rest of us “fools” for believing what the media had to say.

I had a conversation with “Charlie H.” from Local 3. Charlie was sick with the Coronavirus in March. His observation was simple.

Charlie explained, “We need to figure out a way to move on.”

“We can’t be scared to live our lives,” Charlie said. “We have to be smart though. Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this.”

Charlie called for a mutually beneficial responsibility between management and workers alike. “We have to do our best to take care of sanitary options,” Charlie said. “This can’t just be one sided. It’s not about the worker or management. This attention has to come from everybody.”

Due to the plummeting numbers of tenants leaving commercial properties, like many others, I am faced with unsure times. My crew and many operating engineers have been split. We are on a “Work-Share Program” which our employers have provided as an alternative to laying off workers. This program brings us to no less than 20% and to no more than 60% of a 40 hour work-week to ensure that other employees will keep their positions.

I have had conversations with different tradesmen that defy the problem at hand. Some vehemently deny the virus and are willing to take the risk. However, in conversation with a coworker, Robertino Garces explains, “Covid-19 is very real.”

Since the shutdown began, Robertino has lost four members of his immediate family to the Pandemic. There were no goodbyes and no visits to the hospital. There was nothing but the cold, surreal fact that four of his loved ones died within a three-week period. Meanwhile, nothing stopped, and no one paused.

“I don’t wish this on anyone,” Garces said. With tearful eyes, he explained, “If people think that Covid-19 isn’t real, wait until it hits their family. Then they’ll know the truth.”

I understand that everyone wants to return to normal. I understand the financial fears and the concerns for our economic future. Furthermore, I understand the importance of protective gear and the safety of social distancing, which is why I support a slow start to an immediate turnover. Then again, I also understand the reality of having unpaid bills, which means I want the world to be up and running as quickly as possible. I just don’t want to see anyone else die. Therefore, in order to preserve our best interest, we have to preserve ourselves and stay healthy by any means necessary.

Overall the opinion that I have has come to is this: Let’s get it right the first time! Let’s get through this. We can argue about who was right or wrong after we beat the virus. For now, the only way through this is if we all work together because if you ask me, this is how we stay Union Strong!

Ben Kimmel is a proud member of IUOE Local 94, as well as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Certified Recovery Coach, Certified Professional Life Coach and Peer & Wellness Advocate. Ben can be reached at bennyk1972@gmail.com.

May 14, 2020

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