Creating community in the dead of night: Meet Eric Yerxa

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Working the night shift is not for everyone. There’s that perpetual jet-lagged feeling resulting from shift-work sleep disorder, the strain on one’s social life, the detrimental health effects and the disconnect with family members and friends who operate on a daytime schedule.

But for those with night-owl tendencies, the night shift can have its benefits: less commute time, quieter workplaces, better wages, daytime hours to get things done. For those with families, the night shift can help cut the costs of childcare and offer more time with kids during the day.

And anecdotally, night work fosters the development of a unique camaraderie among coworkers—strong bonds of friendship and support that create lifelong friendships.

According to Eric Yerxa, maintenance supervisor for Shop 41, UW Facilities Services’ night-shift maintenance team, the night crew camaraderie is real—and it’s a compelling reason for him to go to work.

‘I didn’t need the sleep’

Born in Moses Lake, Eric grew up in Auburn. He took a bit of a circuitous route getting to UW, working first as an electrical contractor and, for a time, as a merchandiser for the Seattle Mariners, a job for which benefits included free games and swag.

His time with the Mariners during the 2001 season was notable both as the debut year of Ichiro Suzuki, who would go on to become the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year and lead the team to the post-season—and because it coincided with the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Eric’s first day with the Mariners was September 10, 2001.

“It was a weird time,” he said. Although game play resumed less than a week after the attacks, Eric recalls how on edge everyone was. There was an incident when someone threw a bag of ash onto the field—luckily, not during a game—and people feared it was anthrax.

In that post-9/11 world, Eric wanted to do something to help others. His closest childhood friend, a volunteer firefighter, convinced him to join Mountain View Fire and Rescue as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT).

Eric ended up volunteering on the night shift—an indication of what was to come—spending three to four nights a week on call at the station while holding down a full-time day job and completing his electrician apprenticeship at South Seattle College.

He continued the grinding schedule of working, volunteering and apprenticing for five years.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said of his volunteering. “I was young, idealistic, and wanted to help. I didn’t need the sleep then.”

Volunteer firefighters complete the same fire academy and EMT training as paid firefighters and are called upon to respond to fire and medical emergencies in the same way—even driving the rigs and ambulances on occasion.

Eric recalls responding to many brush fires, aid calls and car accidents. He once responded to a call at a coworker’s house (the coworker was ok). The most intense memory Eric has of the time was responding to a call where CPR was in progress, and his team was able to successfully revive and save the person’s life.

After his roommate set Eric up on a blind date with the woman who would become his wife, Eric left his volunteer role to spend more time cultivating his relationship (and getting some sleep). The couple had married, moved to Seattle and were living well when Eric was—auspiciously, as it would turn out—laid off.

Keeping the lights on and the air clean

Eric had heard good things from friends about UW as an employer, but it took several applications to various electrician roles before he landed in Shop 41, where he has worked now for nearly a decade.

His work and volunteer experience, plus his journeyman electrician status from his apprenticeship, made him a top candidate for the lead electrician position—a role he barely had time to master before his supervisor retired, leaving him in charge of Shop 41 as interim supervisor.

Shop 41 handles nighttime maintenance, including electrical lighting work, preventative filter maintenance and corrective work orders across hundreds of campus locations in classrooms, offices and auditoriums.

Eric demonstrates old mercury vapor bulbs (left) next to the new LED bulbs (right). / UW Facilities

“We replace a lot of light bulbs, ballast, lamps and fixtures,” Eric said. “This also includes a lot of life-safety lighting, such as emergency and exit signs, blue emergency phones and other lighting systems.”

The lighting and filter tech positions in Shop 41 are unique to UW, combining two skilled trades into one job. Employees are hired as filter techs and follow a two-year training program for reclassification as lighting techs at the journeyman level.

The crew works in teams of two, with half the team on lighting and half on filters, switching roles every few months to prevent burnout and to keep them focused.

Lighting work is detail-oriented, physically difficult and can be dangerous, with the potential for falls from high ladders.

Filter work, on the other hand, is physically easier but often dark and very dirty: workers wear respirators and Tyvek protective suits to keep the dirt, debris, particulates, spiders and other detritus off and out of their bodies.

“It’s really impossible to do this work during the day,” Eric explained. “Imagine students trying to go to classes with Tyvek-clad workers climbing in and out of the vents.”

So the team works from 4:00 pm to 2:30 am Mondays through Thursdays. Eric’s schedule is slightly earlier, 2:00 pm – 12:30 am, allowing time to collaborate with day shift workers in Facilities and other areas of campus operations.

Although the days are long and he gets home in the wee hours when most everyone is sleeping, Eric spends daytime hours with his family—allowing his wife, a landscape and still-life artist, uninterrupted time to paint while he hangs out with their seven-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.

“My schedule is hard,” he said, “but I get a three-day weekend every week. And I get to mostly avoid Seattle traffic.”

Going energy efficient

Eric was promoted to Shop 41 supervisor in 2016, around the same time he was a “guinea pig” for a new supervisory training program in Facilities called Stepping Stones. The program teaches leadership skills to employees seeking supervisory positions through interactive and experiential learning scenarios.

“I think some folks might take this class and realize that lead and supervisory positions aren’t for them,” Eric said of the experience. “I’m thankful the department has opportunities for those of us who want to explore further.”

Under Eric’s leadership and in partnership with the daytime maintenance crew, Shop 41 has made enormous strides in energy efficiency, converting approximately a quarter of the standard four-inch florescent lights in their campus coverage area to LED lights through a multi-year retrofit program.

LED fixtures can last for 10 years, which cuts future maintenance for those areas by half or more. And LEDs are considerably safer than their fluorescent counterparts as well because they don’t contain mercury vapor or liquid mercury—which can be hazardous to human, animal and environmental health when the bulbs break.

Eric shared that so far, the retrofit program has reduced UW’s overall energy costs by approximately $300,000 and resulted in a whopping $876,000 in rebates from the City of Seattle through a commercial retrofit incentive program. The funds are reinvested for future retrofitting projects.

Filter maintenance, too, has been modernized during Eric’s watch. The introduction of color-coded geographic information system (GIS) mapping for tracking the age and condition of campus air filters has made the process inordinately easier and faster.

“Before GIS, when I first started, paper lists of filters needing service were passed around, or shared by word of mouth,” Eric explained. “With GIS, we’ve been able to streamline the process and modernize a lot of campus filters quickly.”

Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, some 2,300 air purifying units have been installed in classrooms, offices and auditoriums. They have dramatically improved the air quality in those spaces for people with allergies and asthma, though their effect on the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne viruses is unclear.

Eric has been a vocal advocate for better accommodations for the night maintenance crews, prioritizing their safety both in the work they perform and the environment in which they perform it.

Each April, the night crews attend training boot camps during the early evenings, reviewing safety topics as wide-ranging as asbestos and lead mitigation, CPR and first aid, proper lifting and laddering technique, gender and sex-based discrimination, bloodborne pathogens and prevention of sexual harassment.

In a significant win for his team, Eric successfully lobbied for late afternoon all-hands meetings, replacing the morning meetings that effectively required night workers to come to campus in the middle of their sleep time, several hours before the start of their shift.

And notably, not a single Facilities employee was laid off during the entirety of the pandemic, nor were furloughs mandated. Some employees chose voluntary furloughs and some, like Eric, were able to continue working primarily remotely.

Indeed, rather than losing skilled workers, in the last couple of years Eric has added three new techs to his team.

We legitimately like each other

Shop 41 employs 18 people, including Eric, whose demographics are admirably representative of Puget Sound’s ethnographic diversity: 15 men, two women and one non-binary person; a range of ages (Eric is somewhere in the middle); and people from all over the U.S. and the world: Croatia, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and Samoa.

“My crew, they are really the secret to our shop’s success.”

“Having people with such varying ethnicities, backgrounds, experiences, religions and lifestyles magnifies the culture of our team rather than merely adding to it,” Eric said.

He shared an anecdote about an employee in his shop who made friends with two Filipino team members, diving into their cultural heritage and history—and ultimately visiting their homeland with them.

“He ended up visiting the Philippines for a month and loved it,” Eric said.

He acknowledges that taking over supervision of Shop 41 so quickly after joining the team was not always easy. He became a supervisor at 33, the youngest shop supervisor by several years at the time: “It took some time to prove myself.”

Eric has been working on personal development as well. During his daily commute from Stanwood—near Camano Island, about an hour’s drive to UW—he listens to books on tape loaned from Sno-Isle libraries. He just finished Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

“It was a great 50 hours,” he laughed. “A lot less swashbuckling than in the movie.”

Next up is “Childhood’s End,” mid-century British sci-fi about alien invasion. The Frank Herbert “Dune” series is also in the queue, and he’s been listening to a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories as well.

“I’m a bit of nerd,” he acknowledged.

He’s also outdoorsy and enjoys camping trips—although, since the purchase of his popup trailer, is probably not going back to tent camping anytime soon.

The family is planning several camping trips this year: Long Beach, Deception Pass and Ocean City State Park. Daisy, their one-year-old apricot-colored standard poodle, loves camping trips too.

When his kids are older, Eric would love to take a family trip to the UK, renting a car and tooling around the islands at their leisure. He recalls fondly a trip he and his wife took to Italy when they were first married, spending a relaxed two weeks exploring the country.

Eric is grateful to work for an employer that so strongly supports professional and personal development. He’s grateful, too, for his union, SEIU, which values diversity, inclusion and fairness and works to see all people and communities thrive.

“I’d like to retire from UW.”

And he’s especially grateful for his team at Shop 41, those close-knit night owls who frequently hang out together outside of work. The crew does an outstanding job keeping campus safe for those of us using it in the daytime, and they also do an outstanding job of looking out for each other.

“We focus on community building and creating a positive, inclusive environment,” Eric said. “Our different stories make us stronger as a group—we learn from each other and bond over our differences.”

He continued, “We legitimately like each other.”


One Thought on “Creating community in the dead of night: Meet Eric Yerxa”

On March 3, 2023 at 1:57 PM, Rebecca Kim said:

What a great look at some of the most important employees at UW!

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