Preparing for the future of work isn’t new to SMART Local 33 in Cleveland. During the recession, contractors learned how HVAC Fire Life Safety skills could keep workers on the job while providing valuable services to commercial buildings in the area. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, Local 33 hosted the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) during a Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality Awareness course on March 15.

The idea was to let contractors know they already have the skills to test the health of buildings in their area. It’s all about perspective.

With all the federal funding available — not just for schools, but for commercial and residential buildings too — Corey Beaubien, president and business manager of Local 33, and Lisa Davis, NEMI administrator, thought it was an opportune time to show the local’s sheet metal contractors that the work scope for Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality isn’t just for TAB contractors.

“It’s a great way for people to continue their connection with their customers after the building is built by maintaining their contact through ongoing Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality audits and monitoring,” Davis said. “In this way, the building owners not only get continuing increased indoor air quality throughout the life of the building, but the contractors are there to provide other services as well when other needs come up.”

NEMI, ITI and SMART contributed to the one-day course, which presented the scope of Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality, challenged attendees to a hands-on portion and educated them on grant and funding opportunities as well as training and certification resources.

In addition to finding ways to keep workers on the job — just as educating contractors on fire life safety did in the 2010s — Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality also opens doors for state and federal grants that fund renovations of a building’s HVAC system, Beaubien said.

“The class has generated interest. They had a better overall understanding about how it works, and that’s the beginning,” he added. “The class was meant to get the ball rolling.”

The skills needed to complete Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality are typically taught during apprenticeship, and it doesn’t take TAB expertise to complete, which came as a surprise to some in attendance. Like fire life safety, this course showed contractors a different perspective — it’s a chance to get more work, but it’s also an opportunity to teach building owners of assisted living facilities, government and commercial buildings how to keep their buildings healthy and safe for their occupants, Beaubien said.

“Fire life safety was a big success. It was an idea to generate work opportunities but also to save lives,” he added. “This is another opportunity to educate contractors and the end users about what is going on above their ceilings.”

Davis added: “We are looking forward to assisting contractors and Local 33 with implementation of Ventilation Verification/Indoor Air Quality in their area, whether that looks like assisting them in helping their customers apply for grants or going after code or specification changes that would include a skilled, trained, certified workforce.”

More than ever, Americans are demanding clean air in public buildings, especially schools. Mitigating and eliminating virus spread, wildfire smoke and other air pollutants while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential, as data overwhelmingly demonstrates retrofits are critical – not only for overall public health, but for improved student performance in schools as well.

In Oregon, SMART Local 16 and the SMART Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) are leading the way in retrofitting these public buildings, putting an emphasis on public schools in need. 

“Thanks to President Biden’s policies embedded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the NWRC is able to offer assistance to K-12 school districts that have the greatest need,” said Lance Deyette, president of the SMART Northwest Regional Council. 

School buildings are plagued by poor ventilation. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act include funding to improve energy efficiency, indoor air quality and other necessary improvements in school buildings through the Department of Energy’s Renew America’s Schools grant program.

To help school districts in their region access these federal resources, the SMART Northwest Council developed a “SMART Facilities” pilot program to assist school districts in the application process. To receive funding, school districts must submit a Community Benefits Plan that engages labor unions – a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), for example. Through the program, the SMART Northwest Council will help school districts with the greatest need perform a school building assessment (a requirement of the grant application) and help write the grant application. 

Since the start of the program, more than 30 school districts in Washington and Oregon have signed Community Benefits Agreements with the SMART Northwest Council and are working to prepare applications for the grant program. Unfortunately, it is very competitive and there isn’t enough funding for all the Northwestern schools that need improvements.

To meet the needs of schools in their region, the Northwest Regional Council applied for Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Communities Investment Accelerator Program through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which proposed $1 billion to fund needed retrofit, energy efficiency and indoor air quality projects of school districts in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. It would create union jobs in underserved communities, improve the health and safety of schools and lower building energy costs.

The Northwest Regional Council is committed to helping schools that have signed a Community Benefits Agreement apply for federal funding to improve their school buildings, and the council is hopeful that EPA will fund its project proposal. Additionally, the Northwest Regional Council will continue to partner with stakeholders to bring federal resources to the region.

“Guaranteeing that public money is carefully invested in good jobs is the best example of good common-sense economics,” said SMART Local 16 Special Projects Counsel Scott Strickland.

Local 16 meets with Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek

From Delaware to Oregon, sheet metal local unions are winning state legislative victories, helping put SMART members to work and improving the well-being of their communities.

On July 26, members of SMART Local 19 (Philadelphia, Pa.) joined Delaware Governor John Carney at the state capitol, where Carney signed into law a regulation that expands prevailing wage to include custom fabrication. Local 19 had pushed for this legislation for years, said Local 19 Political Director Todd Farally.

“This ensures that every worker that performs custom offsite fabrication, including ductwork and commercial signage, is paid the proper family-sustaining wage,” he explained. “Local 19 and the other mechanical trades, along with our sponsors, worked diligently to get this law passed.”

In the past, bad-faith developers had used custom offsite fabrication as a loophole to pay workers less and undermine area contractors, even when fabrication was taking place on materials for prevailing wage projects. By helping build a coalition to bring custom offsite fabrication under prevailing wage — a coalition that included state Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, House Labor Committee Chair Ed Osieski, Representative Kim Williams, Senator Jack Wagner, contractor SSM Industries and others — Local 19 and other area unions will protect Delaware workers and contractors alike.

Local 19 with Delaware Gov. John Carney

“This is exactly why it is vital for our members and all workers to be engaged in the political process,” Farally added. “When we fight, we win!”

In Oregon, meanwhile, SMART Local 16 built a powerful group of allies, including the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), to help pass House Bill 3031, which relates to indoor air quality in schools. If school districts receive funding to improve indoor air quality, the law would require indoor air quality assessments of K–12 school facilities every five years and the use of carbon dioxide monitors in all K-12 buildings to help confirm that all school ventilation systems are operating correctly, and that staff is notified right away of any deficiency or issue. It also mandates the review of an independent third-party mechanical engineer to ensure the proper corrections are made for the best results. Importantly for SMART members, labor standards contained in the bill will require that skilled, trained and certified workers perform the work — creating good, family-sustaining jobs.

The process began all the way back in November 2021, according to Local 16 Regional Representative/ Political Coordinator Russ Benton. That’s when Local 16 began meeting with politicians and candidates on both sides of the aisle.

“Over the next 12 months, [Local 16 Business Manager] Brian Noble and I met with every legislator that would meet with us regardless of political affiliation,” Benton explained. “This turned out to be incredibly important at the end of session due to the Senate Republican walkout.”

A crucial part of the successful campaign was developing a partnership with the state Department of Education. Local 16 worked with pro-labor Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney to start bringing federal funds to Lane County. The local also began cultivating relationships with key players in the education sector, such as the president of the Oregon School Board Association and the executive director of the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), as well as political allies like state Senator James Manning. Finally, Local 16 made the strategic decision to hire a grant writing contractor to help Oregon school districts and local educational agencies secure federal infrastructure bill funding to improve school buildings. Crucially, the grant writer would only write applications for projects under a PLA.

All those steps helped build a strong coalition to push for the passage of indoor air quality legislation, Benton explained. Local 16’s strong relationship with ODE led to the state publicizing SMART’s services on its website, promoting union sheet metal workers as the skilled technicians ready to perform indoor air quality work. ODE also sent a communication to school superintendents seeking initial school districts to participate in the grant-writing and application process.

The results have been immediate, Benton said.

“Within two days of the first communication from ODE, we had 22 school districts apply. Within two weeks, we had 33 school districts. Within three weeks, we had 40 school districts willing to sign project labor agreements.”

And on June 23, 2023, the local’s political relationships proved successful, ensuring the passage of HB 3031.

“Connecting with leadership on both sides of the aisle was incredibly important and made all the difference,” Benton concluded. “In the most hostile political environment in our state’s history, we passed a bipartisan IAQ bill.”

Communities across the nation are once again facing a dangerous air quality crisis due to smoke emanating from the Canadian wildfires. As people across North America seek refuge indoors, it is crucial to understand that the smoke and pollutants from the wildfires can easily infiltrate indoor spaces through various openings, resulting in higher concentrations of harmful substances.

One such substance, PM2.5, is airborne particulate matter smaller than 1/70th the diameter of a human hair and can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxins. A study conducted by Stanford University revealed that this type of air pollution may be up to 10 times more hazardous for children than other forms of air pollution.

In light of this alarming situation, SMART and SMACNA have jointly put forth several essential steps for the public during wildfires:

  • Close doors and windows. This helps to limit the intrusion of smoke into indoor spaces.
  • Verify proper operation and maintenance of ventilation systems. Just like electrical wiring and plumbing, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems can cause damage if mishandled. It is advisable to seek the assistance of skilled and trained HVAC professionals to ensure the optimal functioning of your system.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation rates. Your HVAC system should provide the required minimum ventilation rate. Additionally, if applicable, disable the economizer or eco-friendly option on your system. An HVAC professional will be able to guide you through this process.
  • Avoid creating negative air pressure. Do not turn off your ventilation/HVAC system while running exhaust fans in your bathroom or kitchen, as this can create negative air pressure, causing untreated outdoor air to seep in through openings, cracks, etc.
  • Check filters. Regularly inspect and clean the filters in your HVAC system. In most cases, a MERV 13-rated filter or a HEPA filter will provide optimal filtration. It is recommended to consult with an HVAC professional to determine the best filter for your unit.

The hazardous conditions resulting from the wildfires also emphasize the importance of conducting a Ventilation Verification Assessment for commercial, apartment and school buildings. This assessment, carried out by certified technicians, provides essential data to identify any corrective actions required to combat pollutants in both indoor and outdoor air.

Safeguarding our health in times of dangerous air quality relies on the presence of high-quality HVAC and ventilation systems. By following the recommended steps and seeking professional assistance, people across North America can minimize the infiltration of harmful pollutants and create a safer indoor environment for themselves and their families.

Local 36 sheet metal worker-owner Rochelle Bonty was recognized by the Missouri Women in Trades (MOWIT) in early April, when she earned an honorable mention in MOWIT’s 2022 Contractor of the Year category. Bonty, the first Black woman in the Local 36 apprenticeship program, started her business – RMB Mechanical, a Local 36 signatory contractor – in 2020.

“I wanted to open my own business for my family, for the industry because the number of MBE/WBE [minority business enterprise/woman business enterprise] businesses are few, and for others who look like me so they can be inspired to do the same,” Bonty told the Labor Tribune. “It’s hard, but others need to see it’s not impossible.” 

Bonty entered the sheet metal trade out of a love for working with her hands and the desire to create something out of nothing; “I enjoy seeing the process of renovation and preserving the history of the city I grew up in,” she said. In 2020, that love for her craft spurred her to become a union signatory sheet metal contractor. She had been working at Ball Park Village for Clay Piping systems when the pandemic started – she was laid off, and although she returned to her previous employer, she began researching the process of starting one’s own business. Given the emphasis the pandemic has placed on indoor air quality, she immediately thought of HVAC duct cleaning.

“For me, that was the simplest thing to start, and I didn’t need as much money as opposed to taking on a major HVAC contract,” she told the Tribune. “I started making calls to businesses and asking if they needed their air ducts cleaned.” 

After contacting the St. Louis Development Corporation, they offered her a grant for air duct cleaning.

“That was my first contract,” she added.

Since then, Bonty’s trailblazing career has moved forward at breakneck speed. She recently became the first Black woman to serve on the board of SMACNA St. Louis, and she has aimed to inspire more women and high school graduates to join the trades via her work as a member of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) St. Louis chapter and as a St. Louis Building Union Diversity (BUD) program mentor. Such efforts are especially significant as SMART aims to strengthen our union by organizing, recruiting and retaining workers from across all backgrounds.

“I wasn’t sure if I could [have a career in the trades], but I did,” she said. “I hope to be an example for others so they can overcome their doubts and fears and do things uncommonly in the construction industry.”

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.”

Learn more about Sturzen’s journey in the trade and her work on air quality in schools.

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.”

Unprecedented infrastructure investment continues to create jobs for SMART sheet metal workers across the country. That includes Connecticut, where a project labor agreement is putting SMART Local 40 sheet metal members to work at Bradley International Airport.

“It’s a fantastic thing. We have a bunch of different people, not only from my local but overall in the Connecticut building trades, doing the background work, talking to the right folks so that we can go in there and make good, living wages” said Local 40 journeyperson Manny Heredia in an interview with SMART News.

Watch Nimmons and Heredia discuss new work for members on SMART News.

The jobs Local 40 members will perform are part of approximately $230 million of work on the airport, which will see a total overhaul of the airport’s baggage handling area. Approximately $20 million of that amount is from federal infrastructure legislation, which included strong hiring incentives that benefit union members.

“We’re going to do energy efficient upgrades to the terminal, HVAC improvements which will include indoor air quality, MERV 13 or better air filters because it is an airport where everyone’s coming in, with all the airborne illnesses we’ve had,” Local 40 Regional Manager John Nimmons told SMART News.

“We are becoming a go-to trade, because people are realizing these buildings do need to have great ventilation systems,” Heredia added.

In the past, Nimmons explained, any renovations on Bradley International Airport would likely have been performed by nonunion workers. However, current Governor Ned Lamont sought the support of the Connecticut Building Trades during both of his election campaigns, and in return, he has acted in support of union workers.

“We now get to reap the benefits of jobs going our way with just the stroke of the governor’s pen,” Nimmons added. “All four years of our apprenticeship classes are full – we’re actively recruiting journeypersons and apprentices. The workload we have under project labor agreements, public and private in the state of Connecticut, looks very good over the next two-and-a-half to three years.”

SMART members across the United States and Canada are the frontline workers helping to build a sustainable future – from roofers installing green roofs to meet net zero goal in Canada, to transit workers helping reduce automobile emissions, to sheet metal workers constructing LEED-certified buildings across our two nations. In a recent interview with Climate Jobs National Resource Center (NRC) New York, SMART Local 28 (New York City) draftsman/sketcher Kandice Rogers, an 11-year union member, detailed the crucial role SMART workers play – and will continue to play – in the fight against climate breakdown.

“As the climate crisis continues to worsen, it’ll be our job [as union members] to make sure that people can continue to live in the spaces they want to live in,” she said in the interview.

Rogers originally applied for the Local 28 apprenticeship program on the advice of her best friend’s dad, a union member himself. She had graduated college with an architecture degree but found herself trying to enter the workforce during the Great Recession, when there were simply no jobs. So, after completing a pre-apprenticeship program, she entered the union, starting in HVAC duct installation before moving to the sketching department.

“Before coming into this work, I had no idea what it meant being union,” Rogers told Climate Jobs NRC. “Now, I can’t imagine a life without being a union member. Being a union member has allowed me to have job security. I was able to buy a home, start a family, and have a comfortable life because I’m a union member. If I had known about [apprenticeships] in high school, I would have come straight here, but I’m just glad I’m here now.”

Rogers said she experienced the growing ramifications of climate change back in her installation days, when inordinately high temperatures sent her to the hospital with heat-induced dehydration. As volatile weather conditions continue to increase, she pointed out, working conditions – particularly for construction workers – will deteriorate correspondingly.

In the interview, Climate Jobs NRC pointed out that a number of New York unions are “organizing to make public schools safer, healthier, and carbon-free by upgrading HVAC systems.” Rogers elaborated on the importance of that effort for the students of today as well as future generations.

“We have new technology now, things like Heat Recovery Systems, that help recycle the air and reduce the energy use of these HVAC systems,” she explained. “We can reduce the spread of Covid and other airborne viruses, lower the carbon footprint of these buildings, and reduce energy costs all at the same time now. We’ll need HVAC to survive whatever changes are happening to our climate.”

“Ultimately, as a mom, I want my son to be able to go to places like school without getting sick,” she added.

Local 49 Business Manager Isaiah Zemke (right) with President Biden.

SM Local 49 (Albuquerque, N.M.) Business Manager/Financial Secretary-Treasurer Isaiah Zemke took part in a “Communities in Action: Building a Better New Mexico” meeting at the White House on October 7, 2022. The discussion, part of the Biden administration’s “Building a Better America” series, included an overview with leaders from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, followed by state-specific sessions.

“They had leaders from each state join – from unions, nonprofits, tribal governments and elected politicians – for a group briefing, followed by individual state roundtables to share stories and discuss amplifying them across our communities and states,” Zemke said, noting that he conducted a survey of Local 49 members prior to the meeting in order to convey members’ thoughts to the administration. “I discussed indoor air quality and how we are partnering with school boards, the state of New Mexico and municipalities [to perform that work.]”

In the group meeting, Zemke and other attendees met with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, senior advisor to President Biden; Steve Rochetti, legislative coordinator; Al Zaidi, White House national climate advisor; Jewel Bronaugh, deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture; Susan Rice, director of domestic policy; and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Along with conveying members’ messages to the administration, Zemke participated in a discussion on how recent legislation will impact working families in the region.

“It sounds like the plan is to have all 50 states choose leaders to attend similar action plans,” Zemke added.

Watch Zemke discuss his visit to the White House in episode two of SMART News.

In the New Mexico roundtable, Zemke brought up the amount of work that Indoor Air Quality policies and legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will create for SM Local 49 members, including an Intel plant in Rio Rancho, N.M. He also pointed out the need for high schools to receive funding for CTE programs, ensuring that SMART and other building trades have the workforce pipeline that will be needed to complete the infrastructure work of the future.

Ultimately, the discussion once again proved SMART’s new level of access with the current administration – and the importance of taking advantage in order to strengthen our union.

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.