The Iron Workers (IW) and the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) have announced a new paid maternity-leave benefit, a groundbreaking move that officials hope will boost recruitment and retention of women workers.

The program, which gives qualified pregnant ironworkers up to six months of  paid leave and up to six weeks postpartum (eight weeks, if Cesarean birth), was unveiled at the 2017 Iron Workers/IMPACT Conference in San Diego last month.

The impetus for the program came two years ago, after IW General President Eric Dean attended a “Women Build Nations” conference. “The matter of maternity and being pregnant on the job came up,” says Ambra Melendez, a member of Local 361 in Brooklyn. One ironworker related how she had miscarried due to continuing to work on the job in order to comply with the work quota.

“We asked our leaders what recourse do we have to keep our jobs and benefits?” Melendez recalls. “I said it was no longer acceptable to say on the local level that we have to rely on our employer or the state to protect us.”

That inspired Dean and Bill Brown, CEO of Ben Hur Construction Co. and co-chair of IMPACT, to draw up a plan modeled after an existing off-the-job accident-benefits plan, advised by female contractors and Vickie O’Leary, IW’s diversity chair, notes Dean.

Brown presented the plan to board members as a good business case, noting that losing a female ironworker means losing at least $32,000 spent on her four-year apprenticeship. “Contractors need ironworkers of all types. We want our workforce to be reflective of our North American population. With the workforce deficit we’re experiencing, we can’t afford to lose anybody.”

Opportunities for Ironworkers

O’Leary made the announcement during an all-female diversity panel at the IMPACT conference. The conference also touched on uncertainties about union status and infrastructure investment under the Trump administration but focused on recent developments in safety, public-private partnerships and opportunities in the metal-building industry.

Sharon Bland, president of consultant Indigo Mid-Atlantic, noted the P3 example of DC United, which, after more than a decade of striving, finally has broken ground on a soccer-field construction program. “The private sector’s responsibilities include having to be transparent,” she said. “You have to have good will and know your partners.”

DC United had to build a “litany” of community partnerships and engage small businesses, some of which will operate in the stadium, she added.

Raymound Poupore, executive vice president of the National Construction Alliance II, said union labor funds can contribute $1 billion to P3 projects but noted, “We didn’t want the [private sector] taking over our pension dollars and building projects that do not benefit us.”

The Ohio River Bridges project, which included a design-build job to construct the new downtown Louisville bridge and a P3 to build the East End bridge in Indiana, both benefitted ironworkers, he added. “The guys on the jobs had no idea” which project was which, he observed. “Both projects were built by ironworkers and the crafts ahead of schedule and on-budget.”

Metal buildings pose another promising opportunity for ironworkers, noted Daniel Walker, senior technical engineer with the Metal Building Manufacturers Association. Much of the opportunity lies in commercial building construction.

Panelists emphasized recent updates to energy codes, inspection guidelines and other facets of metal-building construction. In particular, panelists highlighted the International Accreditation Service AC-478 program for metal-building construction. It includes safety, training, personnel, and periodic audits and assessments by the IAS and third parties. “It is picking up steam among owners,” said Sandi McCracken, IAS senior manager. “One big building owner only allows AC 478-accredited contractors.”