The regular membership of the 130,000-strong Ironworkers union can be an overwhelmingly male community, but about 2,100 women members just won an advantage that might be valued by working women in the United States: Half a year of paid maternity leave.
As being one of the most dangerous job being an Ironwoman is full of challenges. The leave, made to be taken prior to delivery, suits 6 to 8 weeks of post-delivery leave.
“The challenges of physical work associated with the ironworking trade create unique health challenges that can jeopardize a pregnancy,” the union said in an announcement declaring the benefit, noting that paid maternity leave “is almost unusual in the building trades.”
The statistics put maternity leave for iron-working women on par with commercial employees at technology companies like Etsy, Adobe, Spotify and Cisco. Netflix and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations are among the list of only companies offering staff more paid parental leave, according to data compiled by Care@Work, which focuses primarily on family benefits.
Bill Brown, CEO of Ben Hur Construction Co., titled the benefit “an investment, because we want our well-trained ironworker women to come back to work.”
Using back-of-the-envelope computations, Brown predicted that training a fresh ironworker costs $32,000 during the period of a four-year apprenticeship, during this time the workers are also paid regular incomes.
“So when you add payroll to 32K a year, and you lose a woman worker, you’re out more than 32K,” he said. “Then you have to train another person to take their place, so it’s a 64K proposition if you lose one female apprentice.
“To protect our investment, if we wanted women to stay in our industry, we had to do something.”
Brown serves as co-chair of the iron Workers labor-management working group, which developed the program for half a year of paid leave along with iron Workers General Leader Eric Dean.
Dean said he thinks the benefit is first of its kind in the building industry, but that he dreams it’ll be a model for others. The working group commenced discussing maternity benefits when looking at why such a higher range of women were leaving the labor force for other occupations.
“We’ve always had women, but never had an abundance of women,” Dean said. “And many of them were leaving the industry after we spent an inordinate amount of time training them.”
While attending a business conference centered on ladies in the occupation, Dean heard a female recount her decision to keep turning up to a job-site months into her being pregnant — — “because if you don’t stay at the job-site, you don’t get a check, and if you don’t get a check, you don’t get coverage,” she said.
Despite keeping her health care coverage, the woman had miscarriage. “It was a heartfelt moment in the room,” Dean recalled. “Everyone’s stomach dropped, like someone had gut-punched you.”
But the motivation for providing leave wasn’t only medical. Both public and private companies “are insisting that the workforce on the construction site replicate the workforce in the community,” Brown said. “And so we needed a more diverse workforce to satisfy new hiring requirements for minorities, women, and veterans.”
Contractors who fail to hire a certain percentage of women could sometimes face financial penalties, adding further incentive to the union and contractors’ agreement.
Contractors who neglect to work with a certain ratio of women could sometimes face financial fines, adding further motivation to the union and companies’ agreement.
“It’s socially the right thing to do,” he said, “but it’s not a bad business proposition either.”