Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is Volunteerism In Rockford Hurting Jobs?

In October 2010 Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan fell to his death when a strong wind caused the scaffolding he was filming a Notre Dame football practice from to fall to the ground. As with the rape cover-up and eventual suicide of student Lizzy Seeberg, Notre Dame immediately tried to go into cover-up mode, but the outrage at such a stupid and thoughtless act as allowing a student to fall to his death in a storm that was predicted by the National Weather Service ensured that Notre Dame wouldn't just be able to sweep it under the rug this time. 

After an investigation IOSHA fined Notre Dame $77,500 in March, 2011 for five violations, including not maintaining safe working conditions, and failing to properly train Sullivan in operating the lift. A multi-million dollar civil suit would certainly have been easily winnable by Sullivan's family, who fortunately for the university declined to seek legal action. I was reminded of this senseless tragedy this afternoon when I returned to my Downtown apartment and saw this...

Those are what appear to be teenagers approximately twenty feet in the air doing maintenance work on a lampost in a municipal parking lot in Rockford. Initially I thought that's sorta nice. I've seen these same people Downtown doing landscaping work, picking up litter, and setting up holiday decorations. But immediately after that I was reminded of the death of Declan Sullivan and the aftermath. If these weren't trained city employees who were being paid to do a job they had some expertise in, what exactly was going on here? If indeed these were volunteers, as I suspect, I have two distinctly reasonable questions to ask: 1) In light of the aforementioned tragedy at Notre Dame, who in their right mind would allow volunteers, let alone minors, to mount a scaffolding on municipal property and engage in an activity that seems both dangerous and meant for paid workers, not volunteers. 

2) Given the astronomical unemployment rate in Rockford, why aren't people being paid a living wage to do this work?

In principle an effort like Sharefest  is a great thing, and of course community and business leaders, and the media love it, but the two previously mentioned objections seem valid to me. These are jobs these volunteers are doing, and in a city with an unemployment rate much higher than the national average, shouldn't we be paying someone to do them? The beautifying and maintenance are nice, and from my window I can see they are working, but couldn't this have been done by people getting a paycheck? The second, and much more concerning issue is the safety issue. The pictures document what I saw, and there's no justification for allowing volunteers of any age to mount a scaffolding and do this kind of work. 

Volunteers of Sharefest sign a legal waiver releasing both the city and Heartland CC from any legal responsibility should they be hurt while participating in Sharefest activities, but OSHA regulations on working on scaffoldings are spelled out pretty clearly, and I'm sure there are half a million lawyers out there who would shred those waivers in court should anyone be hurt in these volunteer actions.

These are just pictures. I'm not familiar enough with OSHA regulations to even know if they apply to volunteers, or if any of those regulations were broken in this case. I just think to the naked eye it looked like an asinine risk to put what looks like untrained teenagers into a position like this. I will repeat I generally support volunteer efforts to beautify the city, but at the same time I wonder why volunteers appear to be doing more than just planting flowers or picking up litter here. This looks like work better suited to professionals, dare I say even union laborers. 

Maybe we could get volunteers to run the city, the Chamber of Commerce, and half the businesses around here. 

I'm actually thankful to see everyone packed up and no one was hurt and they did leave the parking lot looking nicer than they found it. My one and only question here is was it worth the perceived risk? 


  1. I like to volunteer, sometimes with my own kids, but safety has to be first.

  2. I believe that to address these safety issues, an assigned "office" of several professionals that ease volunteerism, city or county-wide, could prevent or reduce most accidents. These city professionals could be regarded as "'insurers' that a group or individuals consult" before beginning a project.

    Waivers are meant to respect individual liberty, but I believe that a meeting with these "insurers" and assurance of understanding by the volunteers is essential.

    Of course, a waiver is meant to respect our individual choices. A good balance is good. Safety first sounds good to me too.