By Samantha Costa
Every Monday, Geraldine Wagenhoffer, a foreman at Heat and Frost Insulators and a member of Allied Workers Local 89, wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and drives two-and-a-half hours to work in Trenton. She doesn’t return home until Saturday morning. During the work week, she stays with her best friend to cut down on her commute.
“I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Wagenhoffer of Millville, NJ, who plans to retire in a little over a year.
At 53, she’s been the only woman on the job for the last 18 of her 21 years working as a member of Local 89. But that never bothered her.
Before she stepped into the trade industry, Wagenhoffer served in the National Guard for 11 years, and excelled in jobs driving for UPS, a limo service and a school bus company. Still, something was missing. She wanted something more substantial.
Wagenhoffer had just gotten laid off by UPS, when her dad – a sheet metal worker – called about an advertisement he saw in the local newspaper. “Make the calls, do what you haveto do,” she recalled his words, with a laugh. “My response to him was, you know, I don’t live with you anymore, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
With her independent nature and starved with a desire to do more, she got the job and never looked back. As years have gone by, she’s worked with other women in different trades, but most were electricians, she said.
Wagenhoffer has shown she’s serious about the work she performs both locally and nationwide. Through her connections in the field, she’s had the opportunity to travel for jobs in Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
“Traveling is the most fascinating part about it, because you get to meet so many other people,” she said.
Her successes have also come with challenges.
“They see a girl coming, and it’s, ‘Are we going to have to pull her weight? What is this girl even going to do?’” she said. “But I held my own and I’d get right into it with them, and I gained a lot of respect.”
Older generations still cling to misconceptions when it comes to women versus men on the job. However, she’s noticed a change over the years, where the younger workers are phasing out those old mindsets.
“There was one guy who did not want to work with women,” she said. “But my buddy said, ‘Take her. You’re going to regret it if you don’t.’” That was in 2006. Now, they’re close friends, she said.
Proving herself on the job is an issue of the past, but the dangers of coming into contact with asbestos impacts Wagenhoffer and her colleagues daily. Insulation has come a long way since the health risks it posed just 20 years before Wagenhoffer joined the trade. That’s because most buildings or machinery constructed prior to the 1980s include insulation with asbestos.
“By the time I got here, there were already so many rules and regulations. We wear suits, masks and gloves. It’s crazy what we have to put on,” she said, adding that she wears long-sleeved shirts all year long as an extra layer of protection from the fibers.
Wagenhoffer is also on the executive board and apprenticeship board for Local 89, where she works with business manager Fred Dumont. He says Local 89 hasn’t fully recovered from the recession of 2008, but that 2018 is looking very promising with several projects in the works.
“Gerry works for me, but she’s someone I’ve looked up to and I’ve admired,” Dumont said. “She’s always conducted herself with dignity and respect. She’s had a very successful career. I couldn’t be happier for her, now that she can soon enjoy her pension and retirement.”
Once she retires, she plans to chase her other passion: Zumba. So far, she’s only made the dance workout part of her spare time, but being an instructor is her long-term plan, she said.
In the meantime, Wagenhoffer encourages younger women to join the trades. Her advice? Don’t be intimidated by the guys on the job or the job you’ve signed up for. “As long as they help you and you pick up on it, you’ve got a friend for life,” she said.