Ellie Engler doesn’t wait for a crisis to strike: She sees it coming, develops a plan and quickly gets everyone on board to deal with it.
The recipient of the Charles Cogen Award, the UFT’s highest honor, at Teacher Union Day on Nov. 7, Engler is an industrial hygienist by trade. She began working with the UFT in 1988 as a consultant and went on to lead the union’s Safety and Health Department, creating its Health and Cancer Helpline and the Member Assistance Program. She also served for 15 years as the union’s co-director of staff, helping oversee about 700 staff members with a compassionate and personal connection.
She retired in 2018, but then returned to the union to lead the effort to protect UFT members’ health and safety during the pandemic.
“Whenever there’s a need, she is there,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in introducing Engler. “For Ellie, it’s always been about that selfless sacrifice.”
In January 2020, when COVID-19 was not yet on most people’s radar, Engler called Mulgrew to tell him, “You have to quarantine a teacher just back from China, and you have to get to the Department of Education about this.”
Two months later, as the mayor argued that schools must remain open even as the virus made inroads in the city, Mulgrew said Engler told him, “We have to close the school system or there will be a huge loss of life.”
School buildings shut the following week.
Then Engler helped ensure every school’s safety as buildings reopened in September 2020. “We were talking about ventilation before that was in the news,” Mulgrew said.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, the former UFT president, recalled working with Engler on previous health crises, such as asbestos and toxic PCBs in schools. She remembered how after 9/11 Engler worked to find alternate locations for schools in the World Trade Center area and helped ensure decontamination work was done in each affected building.
“I don’t know how I would have been president of this union without Ellie Engler,” Weingarten said, praising Engler’s wealth of knowledge, members’ trust in her and her access to many levels of government. “You don’t know how many hours she works to help all of us.”
Among her other contributions, Engler encouraged the UFT to lobby for a 9/11 compensation fund and then successfully tracked down affected members who worked at 22 schools near the World Trade Center to get them the medical and financial assistance they needed.
In accepting the Cogen Award, Engler thanked her family and her union family.
“You mean the world to me. You make me who I am,” Engler said. “This is not my award, it’s our award. We did this together.”