President's Corner

 

March 2019 Infrastructure Strains Under Weight of Neglect

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President’s Corner

So far in 2019, brutal winter weather has slowed work across our geographic jurisdiction, but there has been no shortage of action in the business of the union.

On the fourth Monday in January, the Midwest Operating Engineers’ Fund Office distributes members’ balances from the Vacation Savings Fund, which is a benefit included in many of our master agreements. Members look forward to this all year long, because the timing of the payments is especially helpful during a slow period of work, and right after we all incur the expenses that come with the holidays. In 2018, approximately 11,000 members participated in the Vacation Savings Fund and had a collective balance of around $29 million.

Members are able to borrow against the balance of their funds in the fall, and the full balance is paid out in January, with the options of electing to pick up the check at the Fund Office, have the balance direct-deposited into their Coalition of Union Labor Credit Union account, or have the check mailed directly to them. It is generally a quiet process that generates few questions, but this year’s mailing of our Vacation Savings Fund checks was anything but uneventful, and I want to address some of the complications that we ran into with the United States Postal Service (USPS) and what we did to ensure that members received their money as quickly as possible.

As scheduled, our Fund Office staff dropped around 8,000 checks at the USPS facility in Bedford Park on Monday January 28th, and distributed the remaining funds as directed by members. Two days later, on January 30th, historically extreme cold closed the post office for two days. I have lived in Chicago for my entire life and I can’t recall a time that cold weather shut down the post office before. Around this time, the Fund Office began to take calls from members who hadn’t received their checks. We advised them to wait a few days until the USPS caught up from the closure.

By the following Tuesday, we were still getting calls, and nobody had reported receiving a check. Staff went to the USPS facility and asked about the whereabouts of the checks. The USPS representatives stated that the mail was no longer there, and was working its way through a backlogged system, but that everyone would receive their checks within a week at the very latest. We developed a plan for members to pick up another check the next week if they could wait no longer. This is when things turned truly bizarre.

On Thursday, February 7th, Fund Office staff checked to see how many checks had been deposited or cashed and the number was zero. It was clear that something was wrong and that we were not being given the whole story. Meanwhile, the phones were ringing off the hook with members justifiably upset over the delay. When several staff members went to the USPS demanding answers, they were then told that there was mail within the massive facility that had not yet gone out, but USPS could not determine if our checks were among this mail, where the checks could be located, or even whether the checks would be found. We spoke to employees further up the chain of command, and they could offer us no explanation or certain information whatsoever. Once their story changed, the officers and I agreed that we weren’t going to put any more faith in the USPS. Our first priority would be to get the members their money, and we would deal with the USPS once that was done.

On Friday, February 8th, we cut replacement checks and looked into every possible way to expedite them to the membership. We looked at UPS, FedEx, external mail services, overnight services, and found that it would literally take our full staff two days to complete the paperwork to overnight 8,000 checks. So, we begrudgingly returned to the post office, where several of our Fund Office staff members were allowed in to oversee the processing of the checks.

As always, the universe showed its ironic sense of humor the following Monday, when we received calls that members were receiving both the cancelled original check and the replacement check on the same day. Throughout this process, I could not help but feel that if we mailed replacement checks, the originals would miraculously reappear, and if we didn’t mail replacements, the originals would never be heard from again. It was not a difficult decision to mail replacements, because as I said, I wanted to do everything in my power to be sure that your money got to you. And thanks to the dedication of the Fund Office staff, we were able to accomplish the feat with a minimum of confusion in the end.

Mailing the replacements was not without cost, and we are dealing with the USPS now to determine what potential action we may be able to take to cover our expenses. It turns out they have a long line of users with their hands out, because an awful lot of mail still hasn’t turned up from the closure.

I want to thank the members for being patient and understanding throughout the process. Your frustration early on was warranted, and once we put our backup plan into action and communicated it to the membership, you helped spread the word and let us know when your checks arrived. In the more than 50 years that we’ve been mailing Vacation Savings Fund checks, we’ve never had complications like this, and we’ll take our experience this year into account, and work to ensure that we protect ourselves from ever having this kind of delay again.

Another event drew our full attention in February, though this one should come as no surprise to anyone. An electrician changing a light bulb under a Lake Shore Drive bridge in Chicago noticed a steel beam that was cracked almost clean through, prompting an emergency closure. Further inspection found that a second beam out of seven beams supporting the bridge was also cracked. This bridge carries more than 50,000 vehicles through downtown every day, and its closure presented a traffic nightmare.

As you know, we have been like firefighters on infrastructure for decades. We tell legislators, reporters, and anyone else who will listen that our infrastructure is failing and that a disaster is coming, so this failure was no surprise. Thankfully, the nine-inch dip in the bridge occurred on the shoulder, or there would almost certainly have been a deadly pileup.

We took quick action to alert the media covering the bridge failure that it was not an accident, but the result of neglect and a lack of funding. The story took legs and stole headlines across Chicago for days. Even the Chicago Tribune editorial board recommend that revenue be raised to fix our bridges and keep drivers safe. I never thought I would see the day that we were on the same side of a revenue issue with that newspaper.

What we found, as we always do when a piece of infrastructure fails, is that everyone agrees we have a problem, but only when it has gotten bad enough to threaten safety or cause delay does anyone bother to act. Infrastructure problems often don’t present themselves visually until there is a catastrophe, and it shouldn’t take a loss of life for legislators to recognize this widespread crisis and take action to remedy it. The Lake Shore Drive bridge that failed wasn’t even close to the worst bridges in the region, and it came dangerously close to a chain reaction collapse.

Right now, in Will County, the Interstate 80 bridge over the Des Plaines River and Route 6 carries 45,000 vehicles every day – most of them heavy trucks. The Illinois Department of Transportation gave the structure a rating of two on a non-point scale, and called its condition “intolerable” back in 2017, yet there are no plans to replace it because there is no money. This is a bridge that could fail at any time, and there are no emergency crews working on it, only ordinary workers and families going about their business with no idea of the danger that exists beneath their wheels.

It is our sincere hope that the near-miss on Lake Shore Drive is enough to prompt legislative action, and we are working with other infrastructure and construction stakeholders to launch a public awareness campaign that demands funding to make our roads and bridges safe. It has been 10 years since we had an infrastructure spending bill in Illinois, and we are out of time. We will need your help, so keep your eyes and ears out for requests to call or email your legislators, and when you get them, spread the word to your friends and families as well. It will take all of our efforts, but working together, I know we can get it done.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.