As her first pregnancy progressed in 2013, Adrienne Donato, an 11-year journeyman ironworker in New York City, began to stress.
With no rules or role models for being pregnant on the job, she didn’t know how to inform bosses and co-workers. She feared difficulties in working with heavy equipment such as the "helldog," [a rivet removal device] she was using on vertical truss replacement work on the Brooklyn Bridge and losing medical coverage if laid off.
Donato was allowed to work safely in different project and union roles up to within two weeks of delivery on her first pregnancy, one month on her second, until she was laid off and able to collect workers’ comp. Returning to work each time after six months, she now works on the $2-billion George Washington Bridge overhaul, on which she is shop steward.
But concerned about inadequate and unclear policies that could leave other ironworker women vulnerable, Donato alerted newly-named safety and diversity chief Vicki O’Leary, urging broad changes. O’Leary says the issues Donato raised “stuck in her mind.”
After hearing of Illinois apprentice Bridget Booker’s unreported pregnancy and miscarriage, ironworkers’ leadership moved to adapt existing union off-the-job accident coverage to provide maternity leave. Booker also returned to work, becoming her local’s first black woman foreman, and now president of her own contracting firm, Reign Construction.
Launched in 2017 through contributions to the ironworkers’ IMPACT labor-management trust, the building trades-leading maternity benefit provides qualified pregnant ironworkers up to six months of paid leave before childbirth and up to eight weeks of leave after.
“This is for safety reasons. We don’t know what the long-term effects on a fetus are if you’re welding or have your harness on,” says O’Leary, who adds that about 30 women have used the benefit so far.
No other trade has enacted union-wide maternity coverage, but some of their locals are looking at implementing it in local bargaining units. Also, Canada may add new federal pre-delivery coverage for tradeswomen there to an existing postpartum benefit that now extends up to 18 months.
Meanwhile, one unit of the carpenters’ union, which left the building trades in 2006, began offering maternity coverage last year.
“Ours is minimal cost to our health fund and was a done deal when presented to trustees,” says John G. Raines, secretary-treasurer of the 25,000-member North Central states region. “We felt bad we hadn’t done it earlier.”