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Operating Engineers 324: Essential Workers

The first case of COVID-19 in Michigan was reported on March 10.  Rapidly, things changed for everyone in the state, and Operating Engineers 324 members were no exception.  As schools were cancelled and restaurants closed, many projects were temporarily stopped, and workers asked to wait out the pandemic.  Many others were deemed “essential workers,” from Stationary Engineers needed to keep hospitals, schools, and municipal buildings running, to road workers on projects vital to our infrastructure.  Finally, there were others who were called in to work on emergency projects meant to help the sick and those working so hard to treat them.  All over Michigan, Operating Engineers 324 members answered the call.  Here are just a few of their stories.

“To be just a part, to be able to help, meant the world to me”

32-year Operating Engineers 324 member Aaron Pond was working on a new paint shop at the Chrysler Mack Avenue plant when the cases of COVID-19 started adding up.  A longtime employee of Giffin, Pond had been running cranes, forklifts, and other equipment that are being utilized as the former engine plant is turned into the newest Chrysler Assembly.  Giffin specializes in building the paint booths, ovens, and heater boxes that finish the new cars, and work was steady.

Aaron Pond

The first cases were away from the main area.  Workers increased their PPE and continued on.  When cases showed up in the general assembly area, however, FCA decided to pull the plug and send everyone, including Pond, home for safety.

Less than two weeks passed before Pond got the call that Ford was converting their Rawsonville Components Plant into ventilator production to assist in the COVID-19 fight.  It would require a full reimagining of the space, and Ford called Giffin to build clean a room to house ventilator assembly. Pond went back to work.

“Injection mold machines had to be moved, sprinkler lines redone, additional ventilation added,” Pond explains. “They had a couple of old air houses on the roof they were looking to revamp… (to add more) air for the process.”

Space was limited, so Pond used a forklift to do his work, building new sheet metal rooms and ceilings to allow ventilators to be safely and quickly built.

“We knew that there were lives depending on it, for sure.”

Pond details the amount of PPE he and his fellow Operators and Sheet Metal Workers from Giffin took on every day. “We followed the 6-foot rule, wore facemasks, and face shields if we had to go within 6 feet of one another. Plenty of sanitizer, wiping everything down to keep it sanitized.  We were going above and beyond.”

Despite the enormity of the task, they were done in two weeks. “It was pretty amazing.”

“It takes skilled experts – that’s the key to make this happen.  It’s the skills, it’s the experience, both operators and sheet metal workers – we learned the right way,” explains Pond. “We know our trade.”

But it’s more than just the efficiency of the team that makes Pond proud – it’s being part of something to help in these difficult times.

“It meant the world to me to work on something like this.  I’m grateful to be a part of it.  I’m trying to help these people that are dying and in dire need, to survive this evil thing that we’re all faced with right now.”

He mentions a friend who worked in the paint industry who contracted the disease.

“He fought the good fight for two weeks. He went through the mill…ultimately, he lost the fight.  If I can prevent someone else going through that… I feel for the front-line workers, the doctors, anyone who has to go through this.  To be just a part, to be able to help, meant the world to me.”

While production numbers aren’t available, Ford projected they would build 50,000 ventilators in the factory’s first 100 days.

“We’re the first ones who get called when something is wrong”

Joe Pouget, a Stationary Engineer and Steward for Macomb County, there was never a doubt – he and his fellow Operators were “essential workers.” Part of an eight-person team tasked with taking care of the boilers, HVAC systems, and maintenance throughout Macomb County, Pouget knew that keeping the buildings running would be important, even if they were mostly empty for the time being.

He also knew they would have to take special care to stay safe.  The county, he says, was supportive and in total agreement.

Joe Pouget

“They looked out for us, definitely.”

The first step was increasing their PPE.  Social distancing and face masks at first, and later face shields.  They also worked out a schedule that staggered their days on duty.

“We cover a lot of ground,” says Pouget, “courthouses, county buildings, detention facilities.  Each one has to stay operational.  And this was right in the middle of the season stuff gets changed over (from heating to cooling)”

Because of the shortened schedules, the county limited calls to emergency only, but that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of calls.

“Mostly leaks and things like that. Nothing we couldn’t handle.”

For Pouget, who has worked for the county for 7 years, he is proud of the work they do daily, and happy the county took good care of them.

“We’re the first ones who get called when something is wrong, so it’s important we stay healthy and safe.”

They have since gone back to their full schedule and are preparing the buildings as they reopen slowly to serve the public safely.

“…we’re making sure they have what they need”

Cameron Gardiner

At University of Detroit-Mercy, Cameron Gardiner and his team of Stationary Engineers had a similar plan.  With the school transitioning to online classes and college students no longer filling the halls, work shifted into more of an active maintenance plan.  Like Macomb county, the team split into different schedules and workgroups to preserve their health and increased their use of PPE.

“Our work group itself, we divided in half to mitigate the chance that anyone would get the virus.  We are practicing social distancing, gloves, everything to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

With three sites to maintain – the main campus, dental school, and law school, they were able to spread out and limit contact.  But while the campus was closed and contact kept to a minimum, there was one notable difference.

“We have international students on campus, who weren’t able to return to their homes once the (stay-in-place) started,” explains Gardiner. “We also have the Jesuit priests who make up a lot of the faculty.” So while other buildings had to be maintained while they were empty, Gardiner and the UofD Operators had to maintain the facilities for people who were essentially stuck there.

“You might drive by and think it’s empty, but there are people living here, and they need heating and cooling and working plumbing throughout this.  It’s their home, so we’re making sure they have what they need as well.”

“It meant everything to just do your part”

Schrion Baggett has been a Stationary Engineer with OE324 (and formerly 547) for 33 years, the last 13 of them at TCF (formerly Cobo) Center.  She is proud to work at the premier convention center in the state, and well versed in all of the tasks they are responsible for.

“We keep very busy,” she says. “We’re control room operators, we handle heating and cooling, the lighting, and we dispatch for the crew working in the facility.”

2020 was going to be the first year that the North American International Auto Show was held in June instead of January, but things were still active at TCF Center. “We’re never out, never down, even over holidays.  With heating, cooling, even fire systems, we never stop.  It’s a rarity to not have a stationary engineer in here.”

When the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in Michigan, TCF sprang into action to protect it’s staff.

“We restocked and reformulated housekeeping procedures to meet CDC and OSHA standards for COVID-19 crisis operations including an increased number of hand sanitizing stations, washroom stocking and cleaning measures, signs in all bathrooms with hand washing instructions and PPE availability for staff,” explains TCF Center General Manager Claude Molinari. “Employees were assigned critical pathways to enter the venue and given temperature checks before entering. A permanent isolation room was established and equipped to handle employees and guests feeling unwell.”

Baggett points out the Stationary Engineers were among the first in the city to get “essential worker” letters.  But not long after the Stay-In-Place order was issued, it became evident there were not enough available hospital beds in Metro Detroit if the cases of COVID-19 continued to increase.  An emergency request was made of the TCF Center, and it would require all hands-on deck.

“Representatives from the State of Michigan reached out alerting us that the venue was needed to serve and an alternate care facility,” explains Molinari. “Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the 1000 bed hospital facility was constructed in a record nine days and included 650 beds in Hall C that are all equipped with oxygen.”

The work inside TCF was undertaken by several union trades, including Operating Engineers 324 equipment operators.  But the challenges for the Stationary Engineers already at TCF were among the most difficult of all.  The exhibit halls mechanical HVAC systems were programmed to create a negative pressure environment, designed to replicate conditions in a hospital room most conducive to healing.

“The team at TCF Center proved themselves to be one of the best in the country, working seamlessly with local, state and federal agencies around the clock to execute this mission for the country,” says Molinari. “We will continue to work just as hard in redesigning our product to meet the needs of future events when this crisis is over.”

Baggett is proud of the work accomplished with her coworkers.

“It was a privilege, all of us wanting to do the best you can do to help out the situation, whatever was asked of you,” she said. “It meant everything to just do your part. Everybody just stepped up and did what we had to do.  You challenge yourself, to see what you can do.”

“I can’t say enough for what it has been to me.”

Whether taking part in the emergency work or manning their station to keep Michigan running, one thing all four agree on is the value their training and knowledge as Operating Engineers 324 members. It’s what they credit for preparing them for being the best they could be in this crisis.

“The quality of skilled people they get when they get an OE324 member,” says Pond, “is second to none.  I think more people need to realize that.”

Burgett agrees. “It’s been so fulfilling, being in the trade for as long as I have.  Watching things change.  Anybody who is interested would be on the right path to a long prosperous future to come through 324.  I can’t say enough for what it has been to me.”