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After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, union plumbers fanned out across Minnesota, March 26, on a Saturday day off to provide free plumbing repairs and inspections to 25 senior, low-income and disabled homeowners through the 26th Water’s Off community service program.
“We do this work for the community because it’s a way to give back,” says Dean Gale, business manager, Plumbers Local 34 of St. Paul, whose local had 40 plumbers volunteer sharing their time and expertise during the day. “We want to be stewards of the community. We are fortunate to have the jobs we have and the skills we have so we’re glad to give back to the people in our community who need our help.”
Gale added the numbers of volunteers and homeowners were down from years past, “but it’s a good thing we got the program going again and, hopefully, we can ramp up even more next year.”
Dave Hallis, for example, was one of the Twin Cities homeowners who received help with repairs to his kitchen drain and roll-in shower.
“Without this help, these repairs wouldn’t be getting done because financially I am strapped,” the disabled Navy veteran told the Union Advocate, the official publication of the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
Making the repairs in Hallis’ home were Local 34 members Brett Bernhjelm and Julia Kunze. The duo replaced the leaky pipes beneath Hallis’ kitchen sink, recalked his shower and did a walk-through inspection of the rest of his home’s plumbing.
“It’s a good thing it’s getting fixed today,” Bernhjelm, a 19-year Local 34 member told the Union Advocate. “The band-aids that had been put on were not going to work.”
It was the first time Kunze, a third-year apprentice, volunteered for Water’s Off, but added it wouldn’t be her last.
“I just like to give back to the community, especially for a veteran who has fought for our country,” Kunze said. “It’s an amazing honor.”
Water’s Off is made possible by Local 34; Minneapolis Plumbers Local 15 and Rochester Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 6, along with support from the Minnesota Mechanical Contractors Association; and the Metro Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors.
As Gale noted the effort slowed down somewhat on account of the pandemic, but on average, past efforts for the day of service included 130 volunteer plumbers heading out to 100 local homes around the state with an estimated value of $62,000 in donated labor and equipment.
Since Water’s Off began, union plumbers have volunteered more than 14,000 hours of skilled labor to more than 4,000 Minnesota households. Coupled with the use of vehicles, fuel, tools and parts provided by the partnering contractor associations, the value of services provided through Water’s Off since its start now exceeds $2 million.
Water’s Off originally began as a response to research that showed homeowners with the most expensive water bills were also the homeowners who could least afford their bills. For example, according to the City of Saint Paul Regional Water Department, a bad flapper inside a toilet tank combined with a bad fill valve can run a homeowner an extra $307 a month. Got a bathtub that leaks? That’s another $75 a month.
“Giving back to our communities is one of our core union principles, so once we identified the problem, we knew we needed to help,” says David Ybarra, president of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association, which represents more than 9,000 plumbers, pipefitters and other skilled union tradesmen and women.
And while the program still is dedicated to reducing the unnecessary use of water through proper maintenance of faulty plumbing, Water’s Off has since grown into a bigger day of service.
The plumbing organizations partner with the Ramsey Washington and Suburban Hennepin Community Action Program; Three Rivers Community Action; and Minnesota Valley Action Council to develop a list of low-income seniors and disabled homeowners who are in need of plumbing repairs. The agencies reach out to homeowners on energy assistance programs to identify participants for the annual Water’s Off.
“By providing free plumbing repairs and inspections, this program not only saves homeowners money,” says Marcia Paulson, energy program manager for Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. “It lifts a weight off of their shoulders and brings our community together.”
Gale adds Local 34 also partners throughout the year with Saint Paul Regional Water Services to provide free plumbing repairs for its low-income customers. Local 34 has also contributed free plumbing services and supplies for a Habitat for Humanity project for a veteran as well two other homes built for a veterans through Journey Home USA. Finally, Local 34 organized a classroom build out for The Learning Jet at the Saint Paul Downtown Airport, which is designed to teach school children about aviation.