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Overtime: How the Pandemic Gave Jen Legay the Breathing Room to Recenter Herself, Her Family, and Her Priorities.

 Jen Legay, in front of Lake Massabesic in Manchester, a place she often comes to think and relax.
Alli Fam, NHPR
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Jen Legay, in front of Lake Massabesic in Manchester, a place she often comes to think and relax.

38-year-old Jen Legay of Manchester has been a pile driver for seven years. It's a career she landed on after seeing a sign for a pre-apprenticeship program for women in construction at the unemployment office, at a time when she was feeling stuck. Feeling like she had nothing to lose, Legay enrolled in the program.

“I love welding and cutting because you're playing with big pieces of steel and it's like Legos to everybody,” she says. “I also love seeing the end result, you know, because then you can drive down the road and go, ‘I did that. I did that.’”

Still, pile driving can be incredibly demanding, with long days of physical work and commutes across state lines. And so when the pandemic hit, and Legay got laid off, the newfound time was actually refreshing.

It gave her a chance to strengthen her relationship with her parents, which had been suffering. She started calling every day, and grocery shopped for them, a service she soon expanded to other friends, and their parents. “I became the errand girl for a lot of people,” she recalls.

Even when construction projects had resumed across New England and work was readily available, Legay decided to wait. There were still so many unknowns about the virus, and her parents were in the highest risk group. Between budgeting, savings and unemployment benefits, she was able to make it work.

Once she felt safe visiting her parents at their home again, their relationship got even stronger, and she started to visit almost every day.

The extra time for herself was also invaluable, as Legay faced the end of a ten year relationship. She says she was able to recenter herself and her priorities, deciding that even when she returned to pile driving she wouldn’t let it eat into her life as much as it had.

In February of this year, she put the plan to the test and went back to work.

At first, being back on the work site was jarring.

“So being back on a job with a whole bunch of people kind of set me back on the, you know, like the edge of, ‘oh, God, there's a lot of people and, you know, half of them are not wearing masks or not. Nobody's following protocols,'” she remembers.

Soon, she caught COVID-19, which she thinks happened on the job. She was sick for about two weeks.

These days, she says she’s a lot more at ease at work. She’s vaccinated, cases are lower than they were in the winter, and some of the projects she’s worked on recently have even required workers to show proof of vaccination.

But she’s had to fight for the work-life balance she wants for herself. At her most recent job in Massachusetts, she was working around 60 hours a week with a daily four-hour commute.

“So it was taking a toll on me. And I realized that the distance at this time, it was too much” she says.

That realization, Legay says, is progress compared to years ago. Often the only woman on the job, she constantly felt pressure to outdo herself.

“I was running around with my head cut off, you know, with a tool belt. That was, at the time, brand new to me and heavy as hell. Back then I felt like I had to prove that I was worth it on the job. ”

Now, she says, she’s got the confidence to know she is worth it. She’s also got the relationships in the industry to know, even if she leaves one job, work is never too far away.

So, after mulling it over, she talked to her employer about the toll the out of state job was taking on her. He understood and laid her off, making her eligible for unemployment. Legay says, since she expects to work again soon and feels like she doesn’t need it, she’s not collecting.

As she hunts for the right job closer to home, Legay is also taking a little time to relax.