It’s a nearly 2,100-mile drive from his home in Newfoundland to the jobsite in western Pennsylvania. But Damian Hogan jumped at the chance to join construction crews at the Shell Pennsylvania Chemical project north of Pittsburgh.
“There’s not a lot of work in our local,” said Hogan, a journeyman inside wireman and a 20-plus-year member of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Local 2330. “The way my number was on the [call] list, I didn’t see myself getting work of this nature anytime soon.”
Geoff Wayne did not have as far to travel. He’s a member of London, Ontario, Local 120, about six hours away. There is more work in his local’s jurisdiction, but not as much as in most of the U.S. Wayne also enjoys working as a traveler and jumped at the chance to cross the border.
“The American brothers have treated us phenomenally,” he said. “When you come down here, you wonder if guys might be talking about you taking their work. But there’s been absolutely none of that.”
In some ways, the moves by Wayne and Hogan are no different than any travelers within the IBEW.
With most U.S. construction locals at full employment, travelers often have their pick of big jobs. In the case of large-scale projects like Shell Pennsylvania, the help is welcome — and needed.
Officials from Beaver, Pa., Local 712, where the plant is located, have worked with the Construction & Maintenance Department to ensure contractors have enough workers to fill the calls. The small local has relied on travelers from the very start to help meet the demands of the US$6.5 billion gas project [See “Building the Gas Boom” in the August 2019 Electrical Worker].
But cross-border travelers are still rare. That’s why many Canadian wiremen, especially those in areas where the local economy isn’t great, jumped at the chance to gain temporary visas and work south of the border.
“‘International’ is in our name for a reason,” First District Vice President Thomas Reid said. “We service two great countries. Our goal is always to strive for full employment, no matter if our members have to cross the border in either direction. We’re meeting the needs of the contractor while also providing jobs with high wages and good benefits for our members. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
“We’ve been trying to find a way to get our members to go south because we’re getting calls all the time from business managers down there,” Executive Assistant to the First District Vice President Paul Dolsen said. “They tell us they have plenty of work and need wiremen. ‘Can you get your people down here?'”
The short answer was no. Unlike linemen, who can easily travel from Canada to help restore power after a natural disaster, wiremen are treated differently under U.S. government regulations and not allowed to do so. That meant companies looking to bring them in had to apply to the Labor Department through the H-2B visa program.
It’s uncertain if programs like the one in Pennsylvania will continue, Dolsen said. But for now, the work is welcome. The Canadian economy is strong in some parts of the country but not nearly as strong as in the U.S., in large part due to low fuel prices that have dried up oil work.
Hogan said the approval process to travel south wasn’t nearly as laborious as he expected. He met with First District International Representative Cordell Cole, who pointed him to forms he needed to fill out with the Canadian and American governments.
The process went smoothly, he said. His work visa was waiting for him when he crossed over into the United States at the border with Maine. He and others had to commit to working a year on the plant’s construction. There were 295 visas filled, Dolsen said.
Hogan said the kindness shown by Local 712 and other members has been overwhelming. Local 712 member Phil Divittis gave him the name of a mechanic to work on his truck while he was gone for the Christmas holiday. When he returned, Divittis had paid the mechanic and told Hogan to reimburse him at his own convenience.
Wayne had tried in 2018 to work on the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, but those visas were not approved, so he especially appreciates the work in Pennsylvania. There are always challenges adapting to a new jobsite, but the benefits far outweigh that, he said.
“You’re working six days a week and the money definitely makes it worthwhile,” he said. “The retirement package is absolutely huge. When you add in the exchange rate, it’s a good place to be.”