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Pittsburgh, Pa.- Just like every business or operation present day, it isn’t business as usual. While there is no boldly lit open sign, the Western PA unions are creating their own new norm.

The Steamfitters local 449 have a state of the art training facility in Harmony, PA which on a regular day hosts classes, meetings, and would have been the location for the apprentice competition in March as well as a high school “Who’s Who” competition in May. Knowing they had some technological capabilities, they immediately put an online learning application in place.

“Students were notified of specific classes through Blackboard to attend, from OSHA to refreshers to class for apprentices” said Steamfitters Training Coordinator, Brad Tisdale.  

Blackboard is the learning management system that provides an easy-to-use, social and mobile learning experience from anywhere, no matter where they are or what devices they use.

“Upon the completion of the GoToMeeting with our Sargent of Safety, the students will take a short exam on Blackboard to complete the training. These on-line tools have allowed us to continue our Mechanical Equipment Service apprentice training in these challenging times,” Tisdale said.

Training Director of the Plumbers Local 27 in Pittsburgh, John Inks, relies on messaging his union members through routine website posts like the newly created COVID-19 tab.  Like the Steamfitters, the other pipe trade also relies on Blackboard. “We do not know how long this will last, and what could happen again,” said Inks. “It is important to keep communication going among members.”

Steamfitters Organizer, Nick Kappas, deals more hands-on with students and recruitment. While traditional high schools and votechs are not in session any longer until next year, he has been able to use this time to continue relationship building.  Kappas talks with possible recruits who are not at the high school age and looking for new opportunities, as well as those currently working for non-union companies.

“So many people live paycheck to paycheck and we often hear about men and women who do not have an annuity program or retirement plan,” said Kappas. “This is all part of the union benefits. Some of the people experiencing the mandatory layoff from non-union companies even have to fear losing health insurance because it is month to month, not built on hours worked like the unions.”

While active union members, who were working on commercial and industrial jobs prior to the COVID-19 outbreak have accrued their hours toward healthcare, pensions, annuity and for investment purposes, the apprentices may not have been so lucky. These are the newly sworn in trade workers who are learning their craft through hands-on opportunities on the job with experienced men and women of the trade, as well as through designated school hours. Since a certain amount of hours need to be met for advancement, affecting healthcare and pay, many members were left confused and anxious.

 Local 2 business manager, Jim Cassidy, has addressed the members through a weekly video to calm the masses.

“Anxiety is no joke. You cannot foresee a pandemic nor the outcome and how it affects people differently,” said Cassidy.  “I will continue to address the members, but I want the apprentices to not feel discouraged. We are not concerned with hours worked at this time and will adjust each situation accordingly.”

Cassidy‘s weekly discussions address everything from unemployment issues to anxiety management, and the importance of social distancing but remembering one thing. He records weekly and posts to social media, his app and the Local 2 website.

“Call your parents,” he says. “In fact create a list and reach out to five people each day. Staying in touch with people is crucial during times like this.”

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