What It’s Like to Be a Woman Working in Construction

Solid union wages are a big draw—and a great equalizer—but being the only woman on a 500-person crew comes with its own set of challenges.

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Dec 4 2018, 1:45pm

Jewel Tolliver and Fanta Zephir are construction workers in New York City.

A few years ago, Jewel Tolliver was working "extremely" part-time at a restaurant when she saw an ad for a pre-apprenticeship program that would teach her how to get into the construction industry. Today, the 28-year-old is an apprentice laborer with the Local 79 union in New York City earning $25 an hour plus time and a half for overtime—when there’s work. “I am very happy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a rough go. It’s a tough business, but I am very happy,” says Tolliver.

Women comprise just three percent of the eight million people in the US who work in construction and extraction occupations, according to 2017 data from the Department of Labor Statistics. The high-demand career with a median wage of $44,730 is expected to grow 11 percent by 2026, one of many trades that pay a living wage and don’t require a college degree. And while more women are joining the field—when you include sales and management jobs their ranks have increased by about 16 percent since 2010—there’s still a long way to go before women will be equally represented.

Jewel Tolliver on the job
Jewel Tolliver on a job. Photo courtesy of Jewel Tolliver

Getting started in a male-dominated career

Tolliver never planned to get into construction. “I just had to take something. It was my only option,” she says. The two-month, pre-apprenticeship program run by the New York City non-profit called Nontraditional Employment for Women taught her everything she needed to know about getting a job in construction. “They teach you about the physicality of it, so you don’t look stupid, how to blend in a little bit,” says Tolliver, along with providing an introduction to the building trades, from carpentry to painting.

After years of struggling to find her calling, Tolliver says of her new career, “It’s not just a job, it’s more of a lifestyle.” A typical work day runs from 7AM to 3:30PM. As a laborer, “we actually do a little bit of everything,” whether it’s getting bricks and mortar for brick layers or demolishing the interior of the historic Liberty Theater in Times Square, Tolliver’s first job.

During her two years as a construction worker, she’s been able to wipe out the thousands of dollars in debt she had before she started. When she becomes a full-fledged journeywoman next year, she expects to earn $38 an hour. Nationwide, the median annual pay for construction laborers and helpers in 2017 was $33,450, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You are hungrier for it”

Construction work is physically challenging for everyone, but as a woman of color with few peers, it has a separate set of psychological hurdles. “If you’re a woman in construction you really fought to be there. You are hungrier for it,” says Tolliver, who is black. “You meet a lot of great guys,” she says, but with others, “a lot of times they don’t take you seriously. A lot of times they call you ‘the girl’ like they don’t know your name.”

Black women in the US still earn just 66 percent of men’s pay, according to an analysis of 2017 census data by the Economic Policy Institute. But when you work a union job, where pay is determined by seniority, most of that inequity is erased: Statistically, women in construction earn 96 percent as much as their male counterparts.

“As a young African American woman, I make the same amount of money as a white guy,” says Tolliver. “I definitely want to have a leadership role in my union. I want to be more encouraging for young women and people of color and see it as something for them. I don’t want them to just think it’s a white boy’s game, because it’s not. Everyone deserves a living wage. Everyone deserves benefits.”

Uniform hourly rates don't necessarily equate with workplace equality in the broader sense, however. Even though the pay is technically the same for women and men in union construction jobs, “that’s not to say there aren’t issues of women getting fewer hours than their male counterparts,” notes Erik Antokal, assistant vice president of programs for Nontraditional Employment for Women, the non-profit that Tolliver used to launch her career.

Feast or famine

Layoffs are a way of life in the construction industry as well. Despite a nationwide shortage of trades people, construction jobs by definition have a start and a finish. That makes saving money for the lean times essential. “You might be working a lot of overtime now and pulling down money that that equates to $120,000 a year now, but in six months you might be pulling down what equates to $10,000 a year,” Antokal said.

When I checked back in with Tolliver three weeks after we first spoke in early November, she was still out of work. “Things tend to slow down a bit in the wintertime for construction,” she said. “I planned for this gap in work beforehand, so I have my savings and there’s always unemployment. I’ve been spending my time off doing a lot of leisure things: catching up with friends I never had time to see, fixing up around my apartment, going to the grocery store, cooking, eating better after working so hard for crazy hours over a year.”

Fanta Zephir knows the ebbs and flows of construction work all too well. As a lather for Local 46, her job involves lifting, moving and tying down heavy pieces of rebar as long as 15 feet and weighing up to 90 pounds. Now 49, with 17 years on the job, she earns $44 an hour when she’s working. But she had only clocked 200 hours for 2018 by the start of November. “This is my third time it’s been a bad year,” she said, adding that contractors who use non-union workers often outbid more expensive union outfits.

Fanta Zephir with brother and son
Fanta Zephir, center, with her brother at left and son at right. All three work in construction. Photo courtesy of Fanta Zephir

Zephir went on unemployment when she got laid off from her last job in 2016. Once it ran out, “I exhausted my savings and my annuity and my sons were helping me out with the rent.” She recently qualified for Medicaid for health insurance.

In early November, she got hired to work on the Eastern Parkway bridge, a project that should last for up to a year. To get from her home in the Bronx to her worksite in Brooklyn, Zephir gets up at 4AM, catches a 5:30 bus, then starts work at 7AM. “It’s very taxing,” she says, adding that sometimes she’s still sore on Mondays from the previous week.

Despite the long hours and aching muscles, Zephir says she loves her trade. “I always loved physical work. It’s never monotonous.” Like Tolliver, Zephir is also often the only woman on a worksite of as many as 500 men. But as the daughter of a construction worker, “I never had any problems. A lot of people knew my Dad.” Her brother and two of her adult sons now work in construction as well.

Construction also comes with tangible rewards unique to the trade. “I love the fact that I have done a lot of iconic structures,” says Zephir, who has worked on everything from the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center to the new Yankee Stadium. “It’s rewarding if you like the work: to know that you are building something solid and secure, to know what it means to so many people. You give it your all.”