By Jenn Goodman
At a 2016 conference for women in construction, iron worker Bridget Booker stood up and recounted how, as a second-year apprentice, she miscarried after a very heavy day on the job. Booker told the audience she felt she had had no option but to continue to work when she became pregnant. Without work, she would not only have lost her earnings, but also her health insurance.
She also saw no option to be open about her pregnancy or ask to be shifted to less strenuous work: She was certain, based on her experience on that worksite, that she would have lost her job.
A year later, Booker's experience led the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers union to become the first trade group to introduce a paid leave benefit for pregnant women and new mothers.
The new benefit provides a pregnant Ironworkers member with up to six months of paid leave at two-thirds of her usual earnings (capped at $800 per week) if she is has a medical certificate to confirm that she is unable to continue work during her pregnancy.
The policy also provides up to six weeks (eight weeks in case of a Cesarean birth) of paid maternity leave after the birth of the child. The benefit can be used once every two years and is designed to complement state and local benefits.
A new study from the Chicago Women in Trades highlights the success that trade organizations like the Ironworkers have had offering pregnancy and maternity benefits to their workers. The lack of pregnancy and family medical leave policies can be a barrier to women’s entry and retention in the trades, according to the report, which also examines a recently enacted policy from the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters (NCSRCC).
The report, which details Booker's ordeal, describes how these organizations have enhanced old policies and developed new ones to support pregnant tradeswomen, with the potential for replication locally and nationally.
Like the Ironworkers, the NCSRCC offers women up to $800 per week for up to 26 weeks during pregnancy, and six to eight weeks for maternity leave for women members of the union. The policy was designed to help retain and recruit new members, said NCSRCC executive secretary-treasurer, John Raines, in a statement.
The study notes that helping women stay in the trades during and after pregnancy makes clear business sense, noting that it costs the construction industry on average $35,000 to train an apprentice to journey level, an investment that is lost when the apprentice leaves the industry.
Both the Ironworkers and the Carpenters have found their maternity benefits to be very affordable, the report found. For instance, the Ironworkers policy, which is funded through a welfare fund that provides benefits for members of the union who are injured in non-work related accidents, did not require any special funding.
With approximately 1,300 women members in the United States (2.2% of all members), the union estimates that approximately 700 women may possibly take up the benefit, an expenditure level well within the reach of the fund.
“Unlike some seemed to fear, mass pregnancy did not ensue,” said Vicki O’Leary, Ironworkers general organizer.
In the first two years since the introduction of the Ironworkers’ benefit, 28 women have used the policy, and in the year since the Carpenters introduced their policy, five women have used its policy.
With 26,000 members, including approximately 700 women, the NCSRCC funds its policy through regional health funds, jointly managed by labor and contractors. The report states that NCSRCC leaders are confident that the benefit can be funded with current contribution levels.
“This benefit is long overdue," said Raines. "We want to equip our women members with the benefits they need to both work in the construction industry and to raise a family."
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