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"Women in Tyvek: Hope in Nontraditional Green Jobs"

Appeared in ON THE ISSUES MAGAZINE, Spring 2011

Every morning the trucks roll out of the garage at Community Environmental Center (CEC), and every morning Ruby Carrasquillo is sitting in one of them, heading to a worksite.

Carrasquillo is a weatherization technician at CEC, a Queens-based nonprofit that brings weatherization to low-income homes and apartment buildings in the New York Metro Area. She is also a member of Local 10 of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), and she spends her days blowing cellulose insulation into walls, insulating pipes, weather-stripping doors, or caulking windows.

Carrasquillo, in other words, is that relatively rare item still a female construction worker in the energy efficiency industry. The women on the CEC crews there are three of us out of 23 weatherization technicians do just as much work as the men, says Carrasquillo, interviewed recently while insulating basement pipes at a job site in Brooklyn. This is a great job for a woman, and there is nothing we cant do.

In recognition of her dedication to creating a more sustainable environment for all New Yorkers, the newly merged New York Jobs with Justice and Urban Agenda will honor Carrasquillo on April 29 with an inaugural Movement Builders Award. She will share the spotlight with fellow weatherization technician Irving Jackson and with their boss, Community Environmental Center's founder and president, Richard Cherry.

Carrasquillo came to her green-collar career almost by accident.

Most of her working life, she had been in sales. But several years ago she felt that nothing seemed to be working out. I didn't see a career. She was in her mid-forties, had undergone a serious operation, and her mother had died. She describes herself as being down and out.

An aunt brought Carrasquillo a flyer from Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a nonprofit founded in 1978 to bring women into high-paying construction jobs.

As Carrasquillo tells it, she had had some experience fixing up apartments putting up sheetrock, stripping floors and so she decided, You know what? I'm going to do this.

She took the entrance exam for the nontraditional employment program, was admitted to its six-week pre-apprentice training program, which prepares women for the building and construction trades. Soon after completing it and receiving a certificate, she trained with Local 10 of Laborers International and was hired at Community Environmental Center.

What really caught me during CECs weatherization training, says Carrasquillo, was when one of the guys took a block of cellulose insulation, put a penny on it, and then turned on a torch. That's like 480 degrees. The penny turned to liquid; the insulation did not burn. A house with this insulation would not catch on fire, and the cellulose would save lives.

Weatherization has definitely been a growth industry, even in a down economy. Established in 1976 under Title IV of the Energy Conservation and Production Act, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has brought comfort, safety, and lower fuel bills to millions of low-income homeowners and apartment dwellers around the country. Weatherization also reduces greenhouse gas emissions a primary cause of climate change.

In the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) better known as the stimulus bill, President Obama funneled $6.2 billion to weatherization assistance programs, opening up new jobs. Adding green opportunities, the Nontraditional Employment for Women graduated 500 women in 2009, and despite the rocky economy, 75 percent reportedly found work.

The stimulus money also stimulated Laborers International, which as of 2006 represented about 650,000 construction and public service workers, to see a future for its members in green jobs.

Now two years into her job and a union member, Carrasquillo is hard at work. She suits up in white Tyvek coveralls, a green Community Environmental Center sweatshirt, and a mask to protect her from dust and fumes. In that Brooklyn basement, she works swiftly and cleanly: cutting black insulation tubing, wrapping pieces around brass hot-water pipes to retain heat, fitting the insulation around pipe joints, and taping the seams. Every day I accomplish something, she says.