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Female steamfitters take pride in hard work

Jenny Lessler-Maass works on a project in midtown

Jenny Lessler-Maass works on a project in midtown Manhattan, installing sprinklers in the ceiling of an office space. (Oct. 4, 2012) Credit: Nancy Borowick

Joann King climbs the rungs of a 10-foot ladder with a sprinkler head in her gloved hand, and reaches up to the lattice of steel pipes above her head to install it.

As she does, she catches a glimpse of her foreman, John Mercado, watching her, so she rolls up the sleeve of her T-shirt and flexes her muscle.

He takes her bait.

"Whoa!" he calls out laughing, and jokes about the size of her bicep: "Those are 22s you got there."

King is one of eight members of the Steamfitters Union Local 638 working on a Delta Air Lines construction project at Terminal 4 of Kennedy Airport in Queens, and she is the only female in the bunch.

But in an industry that prides itself on fostering a deep sense of camaraderie, King -- even with bleach-blond hair and manicured nails -- is just "one of the guys," said Mercado, who has been a steamfitter for 30 years and witnessed the slow increase of women in the trade.

He said when women began joining the ranks of journeyman steamfitters, they were given "easy" jobs and asked to fetch coffee.

"Now, whether it's her or the 200-pound guy next to her," he said, "it's the same job."


It's in their blood

Steamfitters build and install heating, cooling and fire protection systems in high-rises, hospitals and other industrial buildings. The industry is notorious for fostering a "brotherhood" and attracting multiple generations from the same family.

For years, that meant sons followed their fathers, who were following their fathers. But today, the profession has no problem attracting women, said Pat Dolan, president of Local 638, which has a five-year apprenticeship program with more than 10 percent female enrollment.

Apprentices are put on job sites and mentored by veteran steamfitters. Every two weeks, they spend a workday in the classroom, learning specific skills that require a practical exam before they can become certified in each. First-year apprentices are paid $20.50 an hour, and get health benefits, vacation and yearly pay raises.

King, 46, of Mastic Beach, graduated from the apprenticeship program in July, joining an industry that has included her father, grandfather, uncles and two older brothers. She applied to take the test in 2006.

"It's in my blood," King said. "I have a family history. Being a little girl, I remember thinking, 'I'm going to do what my dad does.' "

When she started the apprenticeship program in September 2007, she met classmate Jenny Lessler-Maass, 31, of Medford, who also wanted to be like her steamfitter father.

But both women, who are single mothers, faced initial resistance from their families, who worried about their well-being.

"When she first asked me, I told her I didn't want no daughter of my mine to be a steamfitter," said Eddie Lessler, 68, of Medford, who has been a steamfitter for 44 years. "It's hard work, and she never did a lick of hard work at that time."

Lessler-Maass wanted to take the entry test as soon as she graduated high school, but her father persuaded her to go to college. She did and eventually transferred to Suffolk County Community College. She held a series of office jobs, all of which she said she hated.

"I didn't feel fulfilled," Lessler-Maass said. "Something needed to change."


Hard work, real pride

Being a steamfitter is hard work. The workday starts promptly at 7 a.m., and workers handle pipes that can be 10 inches or more in diameter and weigh 150 pounds, and they learn to weld, braze and solder -- and the dangers of hot steam. Plus, there's the sheer exhaustion caused by climbing up and down a ladder all day.

Lessler-Maass said she's glad she gets to work on projects on Long Island, because when she drives by them -- or takes her children by them -- she feels immense pride.

"A lot of people don't know what fitters are," she said. "Every day, we are involved in your life. When you walk into one of these buildings and you see the sprinkler system that could save your life -- that's us."

Dianna Nunez, 27, grew up in Flushing, Queens, with two cousins who were steamfitters; one was a woman.

Nunez, also a single mother, moved to Westbury four years ago after being admitted into the apprenticeship program in 2007.

"I didn't go to college, and I felt like my life was at a dead end, per se, at 22 years old," said Nunez, a former secretary. "I'm able to provide for my family now. My daughter has great things and lives in a great neighborhood and has everything in her hands now that I didn't have when I was a child."

Collectively, the women have worked at job sites across Long Island and Manhattan, including at Good Samaritan Hospital in Islip; the Suffolk County Police Headquarters in Yaphank; the World Trade Center, which King said was her favorite job site; St. Mary's Healthcare System for Children, in Bayside, Queens, which Lessler-Maass said was her favorite project; and Nunez's favorite, the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The trio of "female fitters," as they call themselves, said they don't feel any different from their male counterparts and would be proud to have their children -- daughters included -- follow in mom's footsteps.

"I'm small," said Lessler-Maass, who is 5-foot-2. "So I just need a bigger ladder. There isn't anything they can do that I can't do."

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