Interview conducted on May 8th, 2020
Duane Townes has worked in construction since 2014. He is now a shop steward with Laborers Local 79. He was working on a project at a school before the Covid-19 pandemic but has since taken a position delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) at Bellevue Hospital in New York, New York. Duane has worked 12-hour night shifts, seven days/week since April 2nd delivering PPE in full hazmat protection from the basement of the hospital to healthcare workers in need. He plans to work at the hospital until the crisis is over and is proud to work with and support those on the front lines fighting this pandemic.
Johnnie Kallas: How long have you worked in your field?
Duane Townes: I have been in Local 79 as a Laborer since 2014. Shop steward.
J: What kind of work have you done?
D: Mostly construction. Mason tending and cleaning up after the other trades.
J: Could you briefly describe your pre-COVID work?
D: In Mason tending, I tend towards brick and layers. The bricklayers have to build the wall, I have to bring them bricks, blocks, mortar, anything that goes into the wall. I bring everything to them. I also build scaffolds. In terms of cleaning up, if I am in a high rise building and it gets dirty I have to make sure there is no dirt or debrief in the way. This could cause an injury. Safety is top priority. Even though the area gets dirty, it has to stay clean and make sure there are no tripping hazards. OSHA ensures our safety. OSHA workers and supervisors on site affiliated with the company and they don’t want to be sued.
I work all of the five boroughs. More specifically Manhattan because I live here. In the union they give you preference to the areas I want to work.
I’m a shop steward. Shop stewards and foremen are usually the last ones off the job. We open the job up and close them down. You start off in the union as an apprentice. After 3 or 4 years you turn into a journeyman. After that, if you are marked as a good worker and get references, not everyone becomes a shop steward, I eventually became a shop steward. I have been a shop steward since 2017.
J: How has coronavirus impacted your work?
D: It’s profound. I work at Bellevue. It is the oldest hospital in the United States. It impacts me greatly because I walk around healthcare workers. I am having first-hand knowledge of the pressure healthcare workers are under. I work in the basement where all of the PPE supplies are. There are four guys down there. Two operating engineers and two Laborers. Anytime they call we…there are 22 stories in the hospital. We don’t do all of the floors but we do most of the floors. Floors 15-17 have four wings on each floor. Immediately when we get in we go there, they don’t even need to call us. 24-hour job, two shifts. Mine is 7 pm-7 am. As soon as I get in we make a cart, 6X6 cart with four levels. We fill this up. We fill them up with gowns. We put on N95 and procedural/surgical masks.
We put gloves on there. Whatever they need we put on there. There’s a constant shipment of PPE coming in because they go through it like candy. They rush me when I go up there. I don’t blame them because in the basement there is a long strip that leads to the outside. This is common news. They have trucks out there where they put the bodies. People are dying from this. I am in the hallway one day because I breakdown the boxes. They came through with two gurneys. Bodies covered. When I see them covered they seem like they are asleep but they are dead. I wear hazmats. I go up there, they have a prenatal section. Department of corrections section. Psych section. They have an ICU on the 10th floor. The 10th floor goes through more gowns than any other floor. That floor is where most of the deaths happen. Most of the COVID patients are housed there.
J: So this has been your job for the past few months?
D: Correct. We have had a lot of nurses coming from out of state. They were short on staff. I realized a lot of nurses from Arizona, Texas, Florida, California all over, coming to work at Bellevue. When they see the carts they thank me, I have to recognize they are doing a great job and a great act to come all the way here to do this.
Also, look at how many people are out of work. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to still be working and not have to apply for unemployment. Before this, I worked on a school job that shut down. Same day that shut down I got a call from the union saying would I like to work at the hospital? Those are hot zones. Many refused. My wife asked why I would work. I said there are two hot zones. Unemployed is a hot zone in itself. I know I can put PPE on so I can take my chances. I ride the train, I walk outside. People in my building probably have it. I can’t be frozen in fear like that. The company that I work for instituted that I had to take the test. I just got the results back and it’s negative. Still waiting for the antibody test.
I have been in the hospital for a month. I got there April 2nd. Doing the subways alone, but since they instituted the cleaning it has been a little clean. I work 12 hours/day, seven days/week. I used to go straight to sleep and if there are pressing interviews, I set my clock to wake up. Riding the subways has been hectic. Not as hectic as regular because not that crowded. I used to recognize a lot of homeless people on the train. It’s sad. Who knows, they could be carriers too. Their health is not that great from the outside looking in. Every time I get on the train, I have my gloves on. I enjoy going down there seeing the people work and people helping other people. No pressure on me to do that. We’re in there all night, talking and eating together with my immediate co-workers. A lot of stores and restaurants donate food to the hospital. With my ID I can go to McDonald’s and get a free meal. I can cut the line at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. I am a hospital worker at this point. I live right across from a Trader Joe’s. The lines in that store have been crazy every day. This card gave me the opportunity to go to the front. They let the seniors and hospital workers to go in. I’m not too far from the senior, about to be 59.
The intensity has decreased. The first week and second week I was in the hospital, it was intense. Some of the supplies were short. They have different gowns. The texture is important. The headcovers get used up and it’s days before the new shipment comes in. They tear a gown or shoe coverings as a headcover. They’ve been improvising to use all of the materials and PPE to cover other spots when the PPE hasn’t come in yet.
Photo of Duane Townes.
J: What have the Laborers done?
D: They have laborers in a lot of hospitals. North Bronx Central, Montefiore. They either do what I am doing or they have demolition and renovating sections of the hospital. At least those Laborers who choose to work in the hospital. A lot didn’t want to work when they heard about this. Before I got the hospital job, when I was at the school job as a shop steward, I had to keep a record of attendance and turn it in every week. There were a lot of individuals who chose not to come back to work once they heard it was spreading.
The economic crisis is another problem. The unemployment crashed because there were so many filing for unemployment. At least in that area, I didn’t have to worry about it. I had a check coming in every week and I’m grateful for that. I’m putting in 84 hours/week. Saturday and Sunday are time and a half and double time. When you work nights as part of the contract you get night differential.
I was also able to get tested. That was also beneficial. I will probably get tested again as this comes to an end. That’s the question. Will the lift happen soon or will there be another round of COVID? It’s a question that everyone is wondering about.
Listen, I would have never thought, I’ll be 59 this year. From my history and my parents' history, nothing like this has happened before. 9-11, the wars our parents and grandparents lived through. In our technologically advanced society, this affected the whole world.
J: Do you think this crisis will lead to more workers wanting to join unions?
D: That is a great question. New York City is a union town. That’s an affirmative. I think people will be prone to inquire about the union. It offers you a great benefits package. It takes care of you. It ascends you to get qualified and certified. I never knew how to build scaffolding before, I had to go to school for that. There’s like twenty-certifications I had to do before making the transition from apprentice to journeyperson. It is beneficial. I can’t see as a union person why you wouldn’t want to go union. Me? I love being in the union. My medical package is great. We are the only ones still working in terms of construction. The nonunion sites are shut down and that’s being enforced. Any construction going on, essential construction workers are union. There are two operating engineers working with me the first two weeks in the hospital, but then they went back to site on Park Avenue. But then they shut it down again. I’m hearing within the next couple of weeks a few of them will come back up. For schools, in terms of construction projects, they might open up. Once this is over, I’m a shop steward so I’ll go back to my site at the school. But who knows. I’m going to be at the hospital as long as they need me.
J: Any final thoughts?
D: Just one final thought is how much respect I have for the healthcare workers. Before this, I didn’t have an understanding of what’s going on in there. I couldn’t relate. Now, I see the work they are doing. It’s as important as the firefighters, the policemen. They are very vital. I’m in the middle of the storm with them. I see why every day at 7 pm they get a big applause. They are a team. We are a team. Somebody has to be on the front lines fighting for people’s lives. There are certain people who won’t come near this thing no matter what you pay them. I applaud those who decided to work and with good intent. We get that PPE to them and they need it. It would be hard to do what they do without PPE. It’s coming strong and consistent now.
Photo of Duane Townes.