Eric has been a construction electrician for the past sixteen years, and until recently, worked at the Intel Ocotillo production facility as a Brycon Electric employee. He told me that he had to quit his job when his illness—which he believes is coronavirus—became impossible to ignore. The company has gotten mixed reviews from other workers.
"While construction work isn't necessarily 'progressive,' the place where the contract work is taking place is kind of considered progressive, Intel," he told me. "This is construction work at one of their facilities here in the States, so I'm not a direct hire but they're definitely keeping the wheels of commerce spinning while employees are being exposed to the pathogen."
The debate over what qualifies as "essential" work has continued to percolate as construction workers at job sites across the country follow along anxiously (I've weighed on that as well, with my dad in mind). Other construction workers I've spoken to have described similar working conditions to the ones Eric highlights here—a lack of sanitation, pushy contractors insisting that crews come to work no matter what, bosses' lackadaisical approach to PPE, the impossibility of social distancing
This is Eric's story (check out his Patreon once you're done reading).
I was brought up in a toxically masculine family—the whole “no blood, no foul,” if you fall off of a roof you pick yourself up and get back up there, and “just take a salt pill and walk it off" attitude—so I already knew what I was getting into when I entered the trade. The overt misogyny, the egregious homophobia, and the rampant racism is all part and parcel, even in the unions, and coming in sick to work is no exception. We have been told time and time again that if we don’t show up to work, then the company loses money, almost verbatim. Bodies on sites is part of the bidding process, and in some instances, it can make or break a contract. I’ve dealt with all of that for the last sixteen years, sometimes not so well, and with all of that in mind I took a job in December of 2019 in Chandler, AZ at the Intel Ocotillo production facility with Brycon Electric.
I have worked at this Intel facility, as well as the sister Intel Chandler facility, before with other electrical contractors, and Brycon was one of them. This was a six-month temporary gig with the possibility of hire, so I felt pretty good about the future and had hoped that maybe Brycon had changed since my previous stint with them four years prior. The general contractor at Ocotillo this time around was Hensel Phelps (HP) who I have never worked with on other construction sites, so this was my first go-round with them. That added to my hope for good things to come. I passed the background check and drug test and arrived for orientation on December 10th at 5am.
My first impression? Nothing had changed. Intel is strict and rigid with their facilities, their training, and their safety programs, so HP really can’t add or detract from anything without Intel approval. Nothing had changed with Brycon, either. The red flags were there, but I had to ignore them because I had to support myself, and this was pretty good money, so too hard to pass up. The work schedule at Intel is a grueling one; two 60-hour weeks (back to back, ten hours a day, six days a week) and then one 50-hour week at $26 an hour (plus time and a half for overtime, as well as an attendance bonus for working a full 60-hour week). Rinse and repeat till you fall out or give up.
There are two other non-union contractors, Corbins Electric and Delta Diversified Enterprises, and two separate unions represented on the site: IBEW Local 640 (the electrical union,) and the UA Local 469 (the pipefitters union.) All together, there is a whole shit ton of trade workers at this facility, plus HP staff and safety personnel, the Intel direct hire employees (Blue Badges) in their cubicles and offices, the facilities maintenance department employees, the cooks and money handlers for the lunch trucks, and all of the kitchen staff in the three kitchens on site. It’s a small city ,and should be seen as such. You can just imagine what it looks like inside the facility; people working side-by-side, one on top of the other, and sharing tools and safety equipment, and that’s just in a six by six-foot area. There are port-a-johns with portable hand washing tanks outside; the bathrooms inside are meant for the Blue Badge employees but we filthy construction workers are allowed in so long as we don’t make a mess.
Working there isn’t so bad because of all the safety measures taken. It might be slow and stressful because of the "hurry up and wait" mentality of the work, but all in all, you roll with it because you’re not going to make this kind of money anywhere else in the Phoenix area. I made it through the holidays and kept on chugging when, towards the end of January, my foreman ended up at home sick for three days with the flu. I am an asthmatic, have been since conception, so the flu is already kind of scary for me, but COVID-19 is a death sentence. I had been paying attention to what had been transpiring in China and Italy up to that point, and was already taking it seriously. My foreman came back to work, still sick, and we kept going on with our lives.
In February, we had a holiday weekend for President’s Day. I went home on Valentine’s Day evening and became extremely ill. I went to the store and purchased throat lozenges, Dayquil and Nyquil, and orange juice, and started self-medicating. Monday came, and I went into work because I need the money.
I suffered like this for two and half weeks till I started coughing up flecks of blood at a safety meeting. I worked the full shift, and made it to an urgent care facility just before they closed. By this time, COVID-19 had already made it to Arizona after ASU announced the first case at the tail end of January, so the nursing staff at the urgent care was already wearing face masks. I told them my symptoms: tightness in the chest, hard to breathe, swollen throat, and massive amounts of mucous and phlegm. They took my vitals and saw my blood pressure spiking. One looked me directly in the eye and asked, “Are you having a heart attack?”
“No, I promise, I’m not having a heart attack.”
“Are you sure? Because your blood pressure tells us that you’re having a heart attack.”
“No, it's not a heart attack. I’m asthmatic. This is not heart attack chest pain. This is, ‘Oh fuck, I can’t breathe’ chest pain.”
At that point, they gave up and tested me for strep and flu and gave me a breathing treatment. They also gave me a shot of prednisone (which is a steroid) and a “z-pack.” The breathing treatment and the shot opened my lungs back up, and I took two days off work.
I went back to work even though I wasn’t even remotely close to 50%. I could barely make the walk into the facility from the parking lot, and could hardly work because I still wasn’t getting enough oxygen because I was still fighting the infection. I pressed on, though, because “that’s what men do.”
About this time, we all found out that the Intel Chandler facility had its first case of COVID-19, a Blue Badge employee. This is when the fear became real to me. You see, the union contractors had crews over at that facility, and when things would slow down there, they would send some of the workers over to the Ocotillo facility. Also, some of the Blue Badges have contact with the construction contractors, and those employees also go from facility to facility. Intel quarantined the Blue Badge employee and quarantined the other Blue Badge employees they'd come in contact with.
We were told that this Blue Badge employee had no contact with construction personnel nor anyone at the Ocotillo facility, so I breathed a short, raspy, sigh of relief, and continued to struggle. I ended up going back to the urgent care two more times because I don’t have insurance and the insurance from the temp agency I was working for didn’t kick in for 90 days. A $99 urgent care visit is cheaper than an ER visit, so I was saving money (and adding a future blemish to my credit score.)
I continued following the advance of COVID-19 and the lack of preparation and support by the federal and state governments, and by Intel, HP, and Brycon. Intel just put up color 8” x 11” posters about washing hands to stop the spread of the virus. Brycon told everyone to wash their hands. HP never mentioned it in safety briefings. I made a choice for my health, and on March 13th I separated from Brycon and went home.
Since being home, my symptoms have cleared mostly (still have a lot of mucus and phlegm,) and I have stayed in contact with coworkers to see what’s going on. They tell me that things have only changed slightly. HP is now trying to enforce a six foot space rule in between tradespeople, and can’t quite figure out how to enforce it. Brycon split crews up into nights and days and implemented a new sick time protocol for all employees, including temp employees, that if you’re sick you have two weeks paid time off to get well. Brycon did this because one of the wives of one of the crew members contracted COVID-19.
They sent that crew home for seven days (when it takes up to fourteen days to show symptoms,) and they all came back. A week after that? A couple of the crew members contracted COVID-19. This crew all had contact with other trades people at Brycon, and with the other union shops on site. No one has done anything. Everyone is still working. Intel is considered an essential business, as are the contractors and employees.
This is all just mind-numbingly idiotic and perverted. No one should be sacrificed for profit.