Standing Up When My Union Let Me Down

COMMENTARY

By Mindy McFetridge

As a single mother, I’ve built my life around my daughter and her evolving needs. She has always filled me with hope, pride, and love. After she began suffering unexplained seizures, though, heartache was unavoidable. Working a demanding job while caring for her hasn’t been easy, but I’ve become accustomed to overcoming obstacles at home and at work.

My latest challenge involves both – defending myself from a union that made me choose between my daughter’s medical needs and my job.

I’m one of only a few women working as an equipment operator on a PennDOT crew in Venango County, about an hour north of Pittsburgh. I plow snow, operate heavy machinery, and dodge traffic for a living. I’ve been told I’m “a girl in a man’s world,” and in a sense that’s true. The helmets don’t fit. The gloves are too big.

I chose this job not because it was easy, but because it provides stability and benefits for me and my daughter. Plus, there’s a union, AFSCME, Council 13, that says it’s on my side.

I know unions. My dad had a union job for over 40 years. For me, it’s been 10 years. In a union, seniority trumps nearly everything. A coworker once told me, “All you have is your seniority.” It affects every aspect of the job, and every day of seniority matters. It’s the difference between working out in the cold or operating equipment in comparative comfort. It determines whether I drive 10 miles to work or 50.

Seniority is why I can keep a full-time job while caring for my sick daughter.

In March of 2020, the pandemic hit PennDOT like most other employers, and I was briefly paid to stay home. Soon, I got a call and had to choose – right then on the phone – to use my paid time off (PTO) or go on unemployment.

To me, unemployment was terrifying. I felt like I’d be dependent on someone else to put food on the table. I’d also sacrifice income and seniority. My PTO, though, allowed me to care for my daughter when seizures made her unable to walk and to take her to specialists for treatment.

I was backed into a corner and didn’t know the right answer. I ended up exhausting nearly all my PTO before we resumed work.

Soon, I found out that one PennDOT crew in the county kept working and avoided my agonizing decision. This crew included the union president, his relatives, and other union officials – all men. Some of them had less seniority than me.

I was stunned. I never questioned whether the union would honor seniority rights. It’s written into our contract. I could – should – have been working on that crew instead of burning through my PTO.

But in a crisis, my local union officials watched each other’s backs and put me and my daughter at risk by making their own rules.

Many of my colleagues were affected, but none had the motivation I did to push back. I’ve had to delay an overnight test for my daughter because I no longer had the time off. I called the union’s headquarters in Harrisburg expecting they would somehow make it right, but I got no help or even sympathy.

If I didn’t know it before, I knew it then: Sometimes being a mother means standing up when everyone else has let you down.

I couldn’t afford a lawyer, but I researched a law firm, the Fairness Center, that is representing me for free. In April, I filed a lawsuit to ensure my union follows its legal duty to fairly represent me and, of course, does not discriminate against me because I’m a woman.

No matter what happens in court, I assure you that nothing will keep my daughter from getting the care she needs. It will either be hard, or it will be harder – but I will find a way.

Yes, the union and its “boys’ club” should honor seniority rights. No, I shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit to get what I’ve earned. But we’ll be OK. Because, at the end of the day, making sure everything is OK is what being a mother is all about.

Mindy McFetridge is a PennDOT transportation equipment operator in Venango County and is the recipient of a PennDOT Workplace Hero award.

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