Powerlineman Profile: Interview with the founder of NSUJL, Rae Johnson
How did NSUJL get started?
Towards the end of 2011 there was an excessive amount of accidents which provoked conversations in an IBEW linewives group on Facebook. A small group of wives decided they wanted to fundraise for the families and donate to a charity. Upon looking for one to donate too, we established there wasn’t one. It was at that point we were faced with a decision to go for it or let it go. With the most perfectly placed group of individuals from backgrounds needed to see it through, we proceeded. Having no relationship with each other outside of this endeavor it all seems a bit naïve now, but it worked. Over the course of the first year there were many challenges. NSUJL did not have a huge endowment to start. We grew this out of the dollars in our husbands pockets as many of us didn’t work outside of the home. Gratefully, as we needed every extra hour possible to see the beginnings of NSUJL through.
Tell us a bit about NSUJL and what you do.
NSUJL is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting families of fallen and injured IBEW Journeymen Linemen, Utility Linemen, Apprentices, Operators, Groundmen and Line Clearance Tree Trimmers. Once an accident happens, we reach out to the hall right away. The locals pass along our information and we wait to assist. We value and respect their space. Oftentimes after an accident these poor families are contacted by unscrupulous people from all walks looking to obtain money. With the hall passing along our information, it comes from a trusted source. Some families contact us right away while others it’s a few weeks or even a month later. When they are ready, we are ready. We are there for the long haul.
There are families we talk to every day from 2012 and 2013. Our aid has ranged from assistance with monthly necessities such as food, utilities and housing to assisting with funeral expenses. Each circumstance and need is different and they are treated as such. In addition, we have delivered home cooked meals, babysat while the widow made funeral arrangements and delivered recliners to burn victims so they can get in and out of a sitting position on their own.
Since 2012, NSUJL has provided over $600,000 in aid to over 200 families. We remain the only nonprofit to assist with 12 months of financial aid after an accident. This is crucial to our families as insurances can reduce their normal net income to as much as 40% of 40 hours of straight time in some states. It’s a matter of being able to make the housing payment or buy food. Imagine going 2.5 weeks to only make what you would normally in 1 40 hour work week. It presents a huge problem for most of our families.
Beyond the financial need and relieving those stresses in an already devastating time, our families become our family. There are no hours at NSUJL. We do not close. Calls have come in at the earliest of hours to the latest of nights from wives, widows, and injured linemen themselves. In addition, we have a volunteer licensed therapist who is also a lineman's wife.
Rae Johnson, please share your story with us, about your accident and why you founded NSUJL?
I am an IBEW Local 126 member and know the struggles behind an accident. I was there myself. I fell, was injured, essentially destroyed my right arm and despite years of therapy was not able to regain full motion. Back then we didn’t have 100% fall protection, we free climbed everything and when the orthopedic permanently restricted my ability to climb, I had to resign from the apprenticeship. One of the saddest days of my life. Linework was all I knew. It was the only job I ever held as an adult. I started as a flagger, went on to tree trimming, then took the change to outside construction and became a groundman/operator and worked my way up to apprentice. Of course then I didn’t know what was in store for me. Or the ‘plan’ per se but I get it now. I needed to go through that to really understand what it is like. I relate with my injured brothers on that level. We had a daughter, house, bills and my husband wasn’t a lineman yet. He was a traffic technician. He didn’t get into the apprenticeship until about a year after my accident. We struggled terribly. It was a bad 2.5 years for sure.
Once I was released to regain employment (without climbing or heavy lifting) I applied with the state and worked as a plow truck operator for the winter maintenance division. The funny part is, it was actually a joke. After released, Tom and I were sitting on the couch debating what I was going to do next. At 27 years old, I certainly wasn’t going to retire. He said apply with the state, you can hold up a shovel. Just before winter the state has billboards everywhere hiring for plow truck operators. Jokingly, I went on and applied. Well, they called 3 days later. They verified I had a CDL and all my references, brought me in for an interview and I was hired on the spot. What an eye opener that was. Working for the state was completely different than working with the brotherhood. The camaraderie was different amongst the workers. They weren’t bad guys just a lot of complaining and crying. I worked with old school Linemen mostly whose mottos were “Do your job and shut your mouth”. That’s the way I was raised essentially. I didn’t have any complaints, so I didn’t need to “save my tears for the bartender”. LOL. So, I wasn’t used to hearing it all the time and missed my IBEW brothers. Then NSUJL happened. I never looked back. It was clear then the path before me. I jumped in with both feet, a hope and a prayer. Here we are 8 years later.
There’s a lot to be said about the brotherhood. It has brought me everything good I have. Stability when I was fresh out of high school, it’s where I met my husband, our livelihood, now the honor of being the Founder and President of NSUJL. It truly is an honor. With every check I hand write I think of the locals, companies and brothers/sisters who believe in us to make that check a reality. I think about the family it’s going to, the homes we’re saving, the children who are being fed. It is so much bigger than yourself. Especially now with the Memorial coming to fruition. The brotherhood has always been an amazing thing, all NSUJL did is shine a spotlight on it.
Over the course of the past, nearly 9 years NSUJL has launched new programs such as The Giving Tree, A Lineman’s Child and A dollar for your brother. We will continue to expand our services as our support permits us to do so.