Worker’s-eye View: A parent and Water Department plumber coping at home and on the job

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A utility plumber for the San Francisco Water Department, I am also a single mom of 12-year-old twins. Handling both jobs is a real challenge right now.

We live in Oakland. With the schools closed, the teachers here are doing a heroic job, but the solutions are imperfect. Online classes aren’t available. Kids are supposed to log in and turn in assignments, but it’s hard to figure out what the lessons are supposed to be. Although the school district is trying to provide computers to those who don’t have them, some students were just getting their loaner laptops four weeks after the schools closed. It will be difficult for them to catch up. And what about Internet access? Without that, and instruction on how to use computers, the technology is useless. The schools are trying to provide meals to those who need them, but people have to be able to go and pick them up and there are only 12 elementary schools out of 86 where they’re available.

On the job, those of us who are designated as essential are not being protected. While San Francisco Mayor London Breed has issued strict stay-at-home orders that apply to most city employees, her directions don’t apply at all to Water Department field workers. The situation is strictly business as usual. The only concession has been that we can ask to work less time, but at the cost of using up our leave time. We’ve been authorized an extra 80 hours of sick leave, but that could turn out to be a drop in the bucket compared to what is actually needed. 

At the Water Department, there’s a clear message about who counts and who doesn’t. And as always, the criteria are sexist and racist. As soon as the shelter-in-place order came down, the engineers and other professionals were sent to work from home. The office support staff only got that option several weeks later.

All the trade workers are on the job and working on exactly the same projects as usual, regardless of how essential they are. This includes the construction crews, workshop employees, warehouse workers, machinists, custodians and so on. 

We understand that the delivery of water is essential, and agree that we should be available to repair broken water mains and equipment necessary for supplying water. But we aren’t being limited to those jobs whatsoever. The painters are still being sent out to paint fire hydrants. One plumbing crew installed an irrigation system for a park that hasn’t been built yet, and if the park were finished it would be closed now anyway. How are these things essential? One of the exceptions was supposed to be for work on low-income housing, but there is no distinction being made between different kinds of housing. I’m really concerned about the custodial crews, who got no training on how to protect themselves, have little protective equipment, and are only gradually seeing tiny improvements. They are all at-will employees, meaning that they can be fired for any reason and without warning. So they’ve got no job protections if they speak up. 

At the beginning, there were no safety measures for construction crews. We only got some concessions after complaining, but it’s still basically window dressing. We finally got masks, but are strictly limited to one per day, which we have to sign for. And, of course, in construction work, they get dirty, and they have to be taken on and off all the time. But the utility administration doesn’t care. 

Management won’t give out any information about how many people in the department have been affected. We have had instances of COVID-19 affecting close contacts of employees and workers sent home with symptoms. But when we asked about it, we were told just to not go to the relevant shop if we didn’t have to! In general when we ask about problems, we get “What do you want me to do about it?” as though these bosses have no responsibility to come up with solutions. Our top manager is a bully, and his attitudes flow downhill.

It’s impossible to have social distancing at work. Normally we have four people per truck and now we still have two per truck. We need to share tools and often the same space, while lifting heavy things for instance.

Meanwhile, the Sewer Department has everybody at home except for skeleton crews to cover emergencies. What’s different about them? It’s simple — finances. The Sewer Department is not revenue-generating, while the Water Department is. That’s why we and all our work are “essential”!

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