As temperatures drop during cold and flu season, and Covid infections continue to pose public health challenges, it’s more important than ever to have proper ventilation in schools, offices and other buildings – and SMART sheet metal members are the highly skilled workers with the qualifications and expertise to perform that work. In Washington state, Local 66 members like fourth-year TAB apprentice Kelsy Sturzen are hard at work ensuring the quality of the air breathed by local students.
“I am one of the people that goes through and makes sure that all of the air coming out of the equipment matches what the engineers have designed for that space,” Sturzen said in a recent interview with SMART News. “We make sure that the equipment is working properly, controlling properly, so that we have the proper air changes per hour.”
Sturzen, who works at signatory contractor Holaday-Parks, Inc., spent the eight years prior to her apprenticeship working as the childcare director at the Boys & Girls Club of King County, Washington – a job she entered immediately after graduating from Central Washington College. Eventually, though, she needed a change, and her husband suggested the apprenticeship program at Local 66. Since then, Sturzen has loved life as a tradesperson.
“What I like about the work is that on any given day it can change,” she explained. “There’s always a surprise, there’s always a new problem to overcome. Some days it’s physical, some days it’s not – it’s never the same day.”
Sturzen, the first female technician Holaday-Parks has hired, is currently working on a tenant improvement project at a local elementary school. Indoor air quality has always been vitally important for the health and wellbeing of Americans, especially children, but that area of work has risen in profile since the onset of the pandemic. Now that Americans are fully returning to schools, offices and other public gathering areas, it’s vital that air is circulated in those spaces.
“I would tell a parent whose child was going to an elementary school that I was working on that the importance of the quality of their air realistically goes along with the quality of the education that they want their child to have,” Sturzen told SMART News. “[Poor] quality of air impedes your ability to think clearly, just like [not] getting enough sleep or [not] getting the proper nutrition. Breathing quality air and knowing that you’re in an environment where you can breathe easily and safely is an important fact to know.”
“It gives me a sense of fulfillment knowing that people are breathing a little bit easier because of the job that we’re doing,” she added. “[We’re] making sure that they come into a space where they know that they’re being taken care of.”
The White House released a back-to-school fact sheet ahead of the new school year, highlighting SMART, SMACNA and NEMI’s collaboration with the White House on improving ventilation in schools. This fact sheet was circulated to school districts across the country and notes that SMART, SMACNA and NEMI are the experts that schools should use for indoor air quality, HVAC, ventilation and energy efficiency improvements and upgrades.
In conjunction, NEMI launched a new website that can facilitate connecting buildings that want to make ventilation and energy efficiency improvements to skilled, trained and certified workers and contractors — SMART and SMACNA members. Ideally this will be a useful resource for schools and other buildings as they try to take advantage of federal funding available for these efforts. If a building owner fills out a form on the NEMI website and requests assistance, they will receive a response within 48 hours to help them identify steps they can take to improve ventilation in their buildings.
SMART hopes these resources will help building owners and/or state and local elected officials access billions of dollars in federal funding approved by the Biden administration to improve ventilation and energy efficiency of buildings.
Today, the Biden Administration released a fact sheet intended to help schools, educators, families and children safely prepare to return to school this fall. As part of its efforts to help local education administrators ensure schools are ready to reopen, the White House noted its collaboration with SMART, SMACNA and NEMI – as experts in indoor air quality, HVAC, ventilation and energy efficiency – and linked to SMART’s “Better Air in Buildings” web page. In response, SMART issued the following statement:
“We welcome the Biden Administration’s continued willingness to collaborate with organized labor, and we commend the White House’s Back to School 2022 fact sheet: intended to give every school the tools to prevent COVID-19 spread and stay safely open throughout the year. SMART appreciates the White House’s partnership as we work to keep teachers, students and families safe through the upcoming school year, and our members across the country are ready, willing and able to perform the work needed to keep schools open safely. Find more information from SMART and from NEMI.”
On April 4, 2022, members from across SMART gathered in Washington, D.C. to hear from SM Local 40 (Hartford, Conn.) Regional Manager John Nimmons about important indoor air quality (IAQ) legislation for sheet metal workers in Connecticut — based on an earlier legislative effort championed by SM Local 25 (Northern N.J.) Business Manager Joe Demark — that demonstrates how vital it is for SMART members to advocate in their local governments.
As of late spring 2022, multiple Connecticut State Senate bills, the most prominent being the Act Improving Indoor Air Quality in Public Schools (SB 423), are making their way through the legislative process with the backing of a labor coalition comprising SMART, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the United Auto Workers (UAW) and more. Despite a deeply divided political climate, SB 423 garnered overwhelming bipartisan support, with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont allocating $90 million in his proposed budget to IAQ. Importantly, Nimmons noted, “We got the language in [the bills] that we wanted, that will bring the work to us.”
“When we are involved in the legislative process from the start, we can ensure that the most qualified technicians — SMART members — are the people making sure our schools and buildings are up to par in terms of IAQ.”
The legislative journey started in February 2021, when Jeremy Zeedyk from NEMI met with Nimmons to talk about IAQ bills they hoped to pass. After forming a task force containing SMART, SMACNA, the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB), the UAW, various education and health commissioners, the state department of labor and more, Nimmons and several task force partners created a subcommittee, the Coalition for Healthy Air in Schools, which included contractors, teachers, school nurses and others. In weekly meetings, aided by labor lobbyists in Hartford and the state building trades, the worker-powered subcommittee hammered out the details of a bill that would meet the needs of all parties. “These are all the little coalitions that we had going along, and we used each one of them to pull [the bill together],” Nimmons said. “We didn’t get here overnight.”
In some ways, this legislation was years in the making: SMART members supported the candidacy of the retired teacher-turned-state senator who is now championing the bill. Additionally, it took working with a variety of parties — from the state commissioner of labor to the local vocational teachers union — to make sure every detail of the bill met high labor standards: using Connecticut OSHA requirements, providing adequate IAQ reporting procedures and whistleblower protections, and expanding the standards of existing schools to also apply to new construction.
The impact the bills will have on SMART members is tremendous: They will be the workers called upon to retrofit and construct facilities to meet improved IAQ standards. “This will dramatically change the work hours for my local,” Nimmons explained.
The Connecticut IAQ bills are closely modeled on legislation currently in the pipeline in New Jersey — which, similarly to Connecticut, could never have found forward progress without the efforts of SMART, particularly Local 25 Business Manager Joe Demark and NEMI Director of Training Chris Ruch. Currently, Demark is working to push the bill through the New Jersey Assembly, following prior collaboration with former N.J. Senate President Steve Sweeney. And while the bill has yet to become law, Demark, Ruch and John Hamilton, chief operating officer of TABB, are striving to make sure the legislation includes strong language that will benefit SMART members. As Demark noted, lawmakers — even those with a blue-collar background — don’t always have the knowledge or experience to guarantee that HVAC and IAQ work goes to technicians with the right levels of expertise. It’s crucial that SMART sheet metal workers make their presence felt throughout the legislative process for the benefit of local unions – and the local communities whose lives will be impacted.
“Government officials and communities across North America are beginning to realize how important indoor air quality is for keeping our kids, families, friends and neighbors safe and healthy,” SMART General President Joseph Sellers explained. “When we are involved in the legislative process from the start, we can ensure that the most qualified technicians — SMART members — are the people making sure our schools and buildings are up to par in terms of IAQ.”
“This is going to mean a lot of work hours for our people,” Demark added.
SMART has been instrumental in working to pass IAQ legislation across the country. In Nevada, Assembly Bill 257 requires all public and charter schools in the state to assess and upgrade (if needed) their HVAC and filtration systems once federal money already allocated for this purpose becomes available at the state level. “With fire and life safety, and now with indoor air quality, members will have more opportunities to branch out into other aspects of being a sheet metal worker to increase hours and market share,” SMART Local 88’s (Las Vegas) business manager at the time, Jeff Proffitt, said in June 2021, when the bill passed. In California, meanwhile, AB 841 — signed into law in 2020 — will direct more than $600 million in energy efficiency funding to test, adjust and repair HVAC systems in public schools. The best part for SMART members: The legislation requires the work be performed by a TABB-certified technician to receive funding.
Whether in New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Nevada or beyond, IAQ legislation is emerging as a potentially bipartisan issue with robust benefits for local communities — and stellar work opportunities for SMART members. To begin lobbying for IAQ bills in your state, contact your local union leadership or director of government affairs.