Planning, forethought helped pass Oregon indoor air quality bill

The story of how leadership from Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 in Portland, Oregon, pushed Indoor Air Quality legislation (HB-3031) to passage by the Oregon Senate is a two-year journey. The cause was simple enough — improve indoor air quality in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the state through building maintenance, proper ventilation, adequate air filtration and the removal of hazardous or toxic chemicals.

Local 16 had the forethought to realize the large amount of federal funding made available, from the American Rescue Plan and other programs like it, was going to be difficult for schools to navigate. Many overwhelmed by the process have equated it to going to the grocery store while hungry or trying to drink from a fire hose. There was simply too much for school districts to decipher in order to put federal and state funding to work bettering their schools.

Local 16 leadership saw the big picture and implemented an endgame. If they were going to make their children’s indoor air quality better, and lift up their state as a whole, they needed to create a way to manage the onslaught of funding coming their way so that it didn’t go to waste.

“There was a firehose of goodness that fired at everyone. How do you drink from that?” said Chris Ruch, National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) director of education, of the federal and state funding. “Local 16 figured out how to get some of that hose water and drink it.”

Every legislative effort is unique to the state, its constituents, their political affiliations and a number of other variables. No one effort is exactly like another. For many state-level bills, success only happens after numerous failed attempts that serve as lessons to inform a future attempt.

In this case, what was learned from Local 16’s effort was that action, forethought and the ability to pivot on a moment’s notice are just as integral to the success of any legislation as the bill itself.

First, the bill: HB-3031 requires indoor air quality assessments of school facilities every five years, the use of carbon dioxide monitors in all education buildings and a review by an independent third-party mechanical engineer to ensure the proper corrections are made for the best results. Due to the guidelines in the legislation, the potential to lower operating costs of educational buildings by reducing their energy consumption is also apparent.

The legislation also requires minimum labor standards to ensure all community members can earn family sustaining wages, as well as promote career and education opportunities through apprenticeship utilization and diversity and inclusion requirements. No matter how rural the community, it provides healthy living wages for families and promotes federal funding for Oregon schools.

Every legislative effort is built on those that came before it. In the past, implementation was found to be a roadblock after bill passage. In Oregon, Local 16 leadership thought of implementation and made sure it was included in the bill, to make the follow-through seamless.

“Every time we’ve done this, we learn from the last effort,” said Jeremy Zeedyk, NEMI field representative. “That’s how we get better. I think this is a unique situation in that how to get the funds from the government is difficult, and what they did is make it as easy as possible to give them the resources.”

This meant thinking of all aspects of the bill from start to passage to action — who it would touch, who could benefit and what it could do for Oregon. If a school district signed a project labor agreement (PLA) that had diversity and inclusion requirements, Local 16 would provide grant writing assistance and indoor air quality audits performed by signatory contractors.

“Whenever the Oregon Department of Education receives the federal and state dollars to make improvements, and they spend that money, it triggers all the levels of the bill,” said Russ Benton, Local 16 regional representative and political coordinator.

Local 16 leadership knew that not everyone would have access to jump on an opportunity when it became available, so particular thought went into rural and low-income communities, which are often left out of sweeping legislation.

“We partnered with a nonprofit grant writing organization to help the K-12 schools, especially in the rural and disadvantaged communities, to get federal funding to repair, upgrade or replace their HVAC systems,” Benton said. “It was probably the most exciting piece to all this. Getting the bill passed was the icing on the cake.”

Helping those communities extended to who was doing the work, not just who the work was for.

“What the bill is going to do is to guarantee our members the best possible chance to get all that work and help encourage the school districts to do what they can so we can bring as much federal money into Oregon as possible,” added Brian Noble, Local 16 business manager.

Local 16 also got communities involved. Testimonials and partnerships with the AFL-CIO, environmental organizations, a state school board association, an association of school administrators, faith-based organizations and more helped push the bill through.

“They liked the concept, but they were concerned with the budget and what it would cost,” Noble said. “The bill would not impact the schools’ operating budgets because it was directed at federal and state funding. It was great to have community people involved and providing testimony as well.”

“We would fill up the room with supporters,” Benton added.

Local 16 had the backing of internal organizations as well — NEMI and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers provided resources and expert testimony.

“They understand the political process. They were able to pop in and out of meetings and give testimony at the drop of a hat,” Benton said. “It gave us credibility because they’re industry experts, so they could give their opinions, and that really resonated with the people we were testifying in front of.”

To date, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and Nevada have implemented indoor air quality legislation.

“But what Local 16 did was bridge the gap between the folks who wanted the money and gaining access to that money,” Zeedyk said. “It’s not any different than any initiative in front of them. There are always roadblocks. But Local 16 recognized they’ve seen roadblocks before and figured out how to get around them. They were not dissuaded by any problems that came up.”

“It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” Ruch added. “It sounds wonderful when you hear there are billions of dollars coming. That’s where Local 16 really came up with something innovative. They pulled in resources and partnerships. You really have something when you have Democrats and Republicans saying, ‘Yeah, we need to do something about this.’”

For the industry as a whole, the passage of HB-3031 is a starting point for long-term, sustainable growth in markets where the union has either lost market share or never had it. Bills such as this will “open the doors for sheet metal as a whole,” Zeedyk said. “It shows them we have solutions and we’re here all the time.”

For now, Local 16 is gearing up for what it hopes will be a successful run at helping schools improve their indoor air quality.

“All of our efforts paid off,” Benton said. “It was good to see something good come out of all that work.”

For additional information about NEMI, and its resources, visit www.nemionline.org.

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