In 2017, Heather Escalante’s husband Chris, a traveling apprentice, fell 35 feet on the job. He injured his hip and wrist and sustained a traumatic brain injury. The doctors informed him that it may take years for him to recover.
“His surgeons and doctors told us, minimum, he’d have a two-year recovery and that he’d never return to work,” Escalante said.
Prior to the accident, Chris was the sole provider for the Escalante family. Heather had been homeschooling their two young children.
The family’s income changed drastically after the accident. Heather Escalante went back to work as an accountant after not having worked outside the home for 10 years. She also served as Chris’s caretaker, which meant juggling her job, caring for the children and taking Chris to his doctor and therapy appointments.
“We were trying to figure out what we were going to do,” Escalante said. “We had some friends who were involved with the National Sisterhood United for Journeymen Linemen (NSUJL) and the union, and they suggested we apply for the assistance they offer.”
The Escalantes applied for aid from NSUJL, a nonprofit based in Freeland, Pa., dedicated to assisting families of fallen and injured IBEW journeymen linemen, utility linemen, apprentice linemen, groundmen, operators, line clearance tree-trim workers and their families. At first, the family was denied because NSUJL suggested they use up their savings. But six months later, when the Escalantes had exhausted their funds and contributions and were at risk of losing their vehicles, NSUJL was there for them.
NSUJL offers financial assistance for families (offsetting what families receive from worker’s compensation), therapy for injured lineworkers, a Giving Tree program to send gifts to families during the holidays and a Lineman’s Child program to send birthday gifts to children and pay their way to summer camps. The organization makes sure families’ mortgages, utilities and cars are paid and that there is food on the table. It has a team of volunteers that provides home-cooked meals, babysits children, delivers food to burn victims in hospitals, delivers recliners necessary for recovery and more.
The Escalantes received financial assistance for their utilities, cars, phone bills and an apartment, “which was pretty crucial to my husband’s recovery, because we were in an RV and we needed a bigger, more accessible space,” Escalante said. “It was really helpful to not worry about how am I going to pay my car payments, or can I afford to stay in this apartment?”
There are other community-based professions where there are hundreds of charities, and not a single one for linemen, who are on the top 10 list for dangerous professions. — Rae Johnson, National Sisterhood United for Journeymen Linemen founder and president
When your world turns upside down
“It’s such a relief for these families,” said Rae Johnson, founder and president of NSUJL. “There’s no end to the amount of in-home care that our members and volunteers are willing to do. Sometimes, they just need the cheerleading squad, and that’s essentially what we’d be.”
Terry Riffe and Jessica Lackey were instrumental in organizing the volunteers and setting up the marketing. Both are “compassionate wives of the trade,” Johnson said.
“Sometimes widows need someone to call at 2 in the morning when they’re in their husband’s pickup truck, crying,” Johnson said. “Someone that’s not a therapist, that’s not going to judge them. We also have a licensed clinical therapist, who is married to a lineman, and donates her services through Skype and Zoom to our families.”
In the future, NSUJL plans to launch a project called Empowered, which will support the widows and wives of disabled linemen in obtaining higher education, entering the workforce for the first time or rejoining the workforce after an extended period as a homemaker.
“NSUJL provides assistance for up to 12 months of aid,” Johnson said. “But if widows lose their house at month 14, we want to develop a plan that, once they’re ready to start talking about a career, we want to be able to network with colleges, get them grants, subsidize their childcare, help them pay bills while they go through education so they can become the breadwinner. That’s a massive undertaking.”
“It was very amazing to see that there’s this sisterhood that rallies behind you, and they’re people you’ve never even met before,” Escalante said. “That was pretty unique and a huge blessing for us.”
“The accident was unfortunate, but we would have never met Rae or been aware of families near us who are going through the same thing if we weren’t experiencing it ourselves,” she continued. “It’s under unfortunate circumstances that we met, but I’m glad that we did.”
Johnson believes she is the exact right person for this difficult job. When she receives calls from people who are injured, or their wives or widows, she relates to them.
An active member of IBEW Local 126 in Pennsylvania, she was injured on the job in 2004 and had to resign.
“When they tell me their whole world is upside down, I’ve been there; I understand,” she said. “I really think I was meant to go through [my injury and recovery]. I was meant to understand and be able to do this job to the fullest. When I got injured, I fell into a really hard depression for a while. My whole life was wrapped around the industry. I got into it very young, and I’d never worked in anything else.”
Supporting the supporters
In 2018, Chris Escalante returned to work as a foreman. He made a miraculous recovery, and Heather Escalante said even his doctors didn’t have a clear explanation.
Now, the Escalantes are working to donate back twofold to NSUJL, even becoming one of the sponsors for the organization’s national memorial.
The memorial, which will be built in Freeland, has received close to $1 million in donations—exceeding projected fundraising—from IBEW, large electrical contractors, Quanta Services in Houston and other sponsors. The goal is to break ground this month and open in June 2022.
It will serve as a permanent place of dedication for fallen and injured brothers “so their loss will not be forgotten; it will be written in stone,” Johnson said.
NSUJL and similar organizations need to continue to be supported so they can keep helping people, Escalante said.
“As long as we continue to have the means, then we aim to double what we were given, if not more,” she said. “If you’re not going through it, [I’d] encourage people to keep supporting it. After seeing the impact of what that support can give you, it’s like, why wouldn’t you want to give that to someone else?”
Last Christmas, the Escalantes received a wish list from NSUJL for a local family and thought it would be fun to buy everything the family members had asked for, just like when Chris was recovering and the Escalantes received their entire wish list: new shoes, pants, toys for the kids and Kohl’s cash.
“It was so kind to still give [the kids] a normal Christmas,” Escalante said. “It’s great to be able to do that now, to be on the other side of it and say, ‘We’re going to bless your socks off.’”
Operationalizing ‘passing the hat’
Johnson and several other lineworkers or wives of lineworkers formed NSUJL in 2012. After her accident, Johnson connected with the IBEW Wives Facebook group, where there was ongoing conversation about operationalizing the so-called “passing of the hat.”
“Our husbands are never home, they travel to work all over the country, they’re out in the worst weather, our power could be out too, but they’re out restoring someone else’s,” Johnson said. “We’re essentially single mothers, a lot of us. There’s a common bond between women married to linemen.”
As long as we continue to have the means, then we aim to double what we were given, if not more. After seeing the impact of what that support can give you, it’s like, why wouldn’t you want to give that to someone else? — Heather Escalante
In 2011, there seemed to be a lot of accidents back-to-back, according to Johnson. The group was trying to be proactive about basket raffles and raising funds for the families. Members of the Facebook group searched for a charity to which they could give the money they raised, but couldn’t find one, which was aggravating.
“There are other community-based professions where there are hundreds of charities, and not a single one for linemen, who are on the top 10 list for dangerous professions,” Johnson said.
“It was one of those things in life where you were going to let a really good idea go or you were going to go for it,” she said.
So they formed NSUJL and contacted IBEW locals. The brotherhood responded overwhelmingly.
In the nine years since NSUJL formed, the organization has assisted 412 families, gained 464 members and received donations from 1,254 people, according to its website. NSUJL is able to offer support for longer periods of time and even months or years after someone has been in an accident, if the person is in need.
“We’re trying to shine a big light on the fact that the brotherhood has always done this, passed the hat after an accident and delivered money to the families, and make it an organized effort,” Johnson said. “But it’s what happens six or 12 months later. Who’s following up then, taking care for the long haul? That’s where NSUJL comes in.”
Safety in the EC industry
While electrical contractors are skilled and well-trained, accidents do occur. A big danger is working with or near live wires without using the proper safety procedures.
In 2019, electrical fatality rates were 0.11 fatalities per 100,000 workers, and the rate for all fatalities was 3.6 per 100,000 workers, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, Rosslyn, Va. In 2019, the construction industry had the highest rate of fatal electrical injuries (0.7 per 100,000), followed by the utility industry (0.4 per 100,000).
Johnson believes that human error is to blame, but failing to properly ground, equipment failure, not paying attention and being overworked are also important factors.
“Imagine if every time you had a typo, you risked your life,” she asked this writer. “How many times would that happen a day? Linemen can’t do that; there’s no eraser on a lineman’s pen. That’s it.”