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How essential is construction during the coronavirus pandemic?

“It’s putting a lot of people in really tough positions. We’re all going to be sacrificing,” says one general contractor

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed life down for millions of Americans, but it hasn’t for Evan Adams, a specialty sports contractor based in Northern California. He currently has five in-progress construction projects, mostly installing school gymnasium floors, that are going full steam ahead due to contractual obligations. In construction, time is money, even during a global health crisis. “More than anything we need schools to extend deadlines and just slow the pace,” Adams says. “It is not essential to keep going at normal speeds.”

The federal government hasn’t issued specific mandates to the construction industry, so states and cities are enacting their own policies. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 19 instructing all residents statewide to stay at home, but he granted exceptions for essential workforce, which includes “construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects, including housing construction.”

Because of the nature of his projects as a flooring subcontractor, Adams and his team are typically brought in toward the end of a project, when multiple subcontractors are also at work, and everyone is jockeying for space. He offered to pay his workers overtime, out of his own pocket, if they want to come in over the weekend and finish their job when the job site would be empty.

“My guys want to do their part, but they don’t want to crawl over everyone at the end of a project,” he says. “They just want to stay home. They have wives that might have immune system issues, they might have older parents at home that they are caring for.”

From coast to coast, stay-at-home and social-distancing orders have been issued to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. By the end of last week, 21 state orders took effect, limiting activity to critical infrastructure and services. The list of states and cities telling people to stay home is growing. While some of the essential businesses seem uncontroversial—like hospitals and grocery stores—others fall into a gray area. Construction, which employs over 7 million people nationwide, is one of them.

While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business. Individual workers and small-business owners are torn between concerns for health and safety, the very urgent need for a steady paycheck, and legal contractual obligations.

Amid a worsening pandemic, just how essential should construction be considered? Curbed spoke to construction workers, contractors, small-business owners, industry groups, and trade unions to hear what they have to say.

“It’s a crisis that’s putting a strain on construction, but it’s kind of multifaceted,” says John Doherty, communications director of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), a union that represents 160,000 construction workers in the United States and Canada. While major cities are banning or limiting construction, which is causing unemployment, some areas, particularly those that haven’t begun widespread testing and aren’t experiencing their peaks, haven’t altered activity. “A lot of our members may be in danger there. Those areas have to make sure they’re following the right protocols, like the EEOC guidance on personal protective equipment and cleaning down job sites. At the end of the day that’s the number-one priority, that these projects are safe.”

How states and cities are handling construction during the COVID-19 pandemic

In the absence of federal guidelines on construction during the pandemic, state and local governments are issuing their own rules for the industry, which has led to a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

Gov. Newsom isn’t alone in categorizing construction as an essential business. However, some California cities and counties have taken their own, and sometimes stricter, stances on what type of construction work is permissible in their jurisdictions during the pandemic.

San Francisco city and county considers “public works construction” and “construction of housing (in particular affordable housing or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness)” as essential. The list also includes “airport operations, water, sewer, gas, electrical, oil refining, roads and highways, public transportation, solid waste collection and removal, internet, and telecommunications systems (including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services, business infrastructure, communications, and web-based services).” Santa Clara and Alameda counties—in the south and east bay, respectively—have similar policies with respect to what type of construction is allowed during their shelter-in-place orders. Meanwhile, some local building departments are turning to virtual inspections to keep some projects moving.

The city of Los Angeles has adopted a broader definition of essential construction, and allows “any work necessary to to build, operate, maintain or manufacture essential infrastructure, including without limitation construction of commercial, office and institutional buildings, residential buildings, and housing” in its stay-at-home order. Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced that the city is forming a special coronavirus inspection team that will visit construction sites to make sure proper safety protocols are followed.

Chicago is allowing “construction required in response to this public health emergency, hospital construction, construction of long-term care facilities, public works construction, and housing construction.”

The city of Boston enacted an indefinite construction moratorium, but is allowing work on buildings that promote public health and safety, like hospitals; work to make residential buildings fully habitable; and residential construction in dwellings that are three units or less, including kitchen and bathroom renovations.

The state of Pennsylvania has adopted some of the strictest restrictions on construction. Only emergency repairs are allowed statewide, according to Gov. Tom Wolfe’s guidelines. However, thousands of waivers have been filed and construction is continuing in some areas, like Philadelphia.

In other areas, construction remains unchanged. Construction of Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, is on schedule.

After initially designating construction as an essential business, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently changed course. As of March 27, only work on roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters will be considered essential.

Jay Inslee, governor of Washington state, stated that all residential and commercial construction must stop, with exceptions for emergency repairs and construction related to government functions, like publicly financed low-income housing.

“Different parts of the country are experiencing [the pandemic] in different ways,” says Sean Green, founder and COO of Aforma, a small general contracting company based in Portland, Oregon. His state’s governor, Kate Brown, said that all construction can continue so long as social distancing protocol is followed. “Here in Oregon, we see the actions in California and Washington and from our own government. We get sometimes-conflicting messages on the level of importance. And I feel like we’ve gotten ourselves into a position—especially in Oregon, with the lack of testing—where it’s unknown to us what the level of spread is. We know we’re facing severe shortages in personal protective equipment, in hospital beds, and we’re really not getting much support from the federal government.”

Just how essential is construction during a public health crisis?

While some workers, like Adams, would like to limit work during the pandemic, that’s not the tack being taken by the industry on the whole. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), an industry group that represents over 27,000 construction firms, is lobbying for all construction to be allowed during the pandemic.

“From a federal point of view, we’ve been working pretty aggressively to get the Department of Homeland Security and the Trump Administration to amend some guidance that the Department had put out earlier in the month about essential industries,” says Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives AGC. “Construction wasn’t identified as an essential industry. We’ve been working hard to get them to include construction because it’s essential economic activity... You’d get minimum health benefits, but maximum economic damage, for people who are in high-paying, middle-class jobs by shutting down job sites.”

The necessity of construction versus slowing the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread weighs differently on everyone working in the construction industry.

“First you ask if construction is essential, but you have to then ask, ‘Essential to what?’” says Joe Rigazio, CEO of Talisen Construction Corp, a New York-based commercial construction company that does general contracting and construction management. “Essential to the economy? Yes, definitely. If you’re going to say essential to snuffing out the pandemic of COVID-19, I think you have to ask the next question: Who are you working for and what’s going on? A lot of our projects are helping health care providers. It’s a tough one.”

Before Cuomo halted construction in New York, Rigazio was trying as hard as possible to maintain business. “While New York is flattening the curve and pushing the peak out in time, we’re doing whatever we can to not flatten the curve of the production cycle and schedule.”

New York’s former push to deem all construction “essential” didn’t make sense to Carl Pinter (name changed to protect his identity), a carpenter who is currently working on a New York City hospital.

“Being considered ‘essential employees’ is a little odd for a lot of us,” Pinter says. “There are projects that make sense to run, like ours, but I know guys that are working and they’re not feeling like they’re essential. Like retail: No one is shopping in brick-and-mortar stores [because of the stay at home order]. It doesn’t matter if retail construction is done right now. In office buildings, they’ve halted everything. Why would the office workers in those buildings be sent home because it wasn’t deemed safe, but construction workers told to come to work?”

A gray area that’s emerged with regard to “essential” construction is housing. Regions dealing with the affordable housing shortage and high populations of unhoused individuals have often made exceptions for housing construction. It’s impossible to shelter in place if there isn’t enough shelter to go around, after all.

“There are certain aspects of construction that are essential and need to continue to promote the health and safety of our community,” Green says. “The vast majority of construction work is only essential from an economic standpoint. However, given that shelter is an essential need, one could argue that continuing to supply the continued housing needs of a community makes housing projects more essential than nonresidential projects.”

Moral considerations aside, some construction companies are encountering difficulty keeping projects moving, but doing their best to work around them.

“It’s been a week and a half [since the stay-at-home order] and projects are starting to hit roadblocks,” says Ben Olson, the owner of the Bay Area-based Cobe Construction. “There are no inspections. Some cities have shut down their building departments. The next thing we’ve been facing is all the subcontractors. They’re in various situations. Some want to work, some don’t want to work.”

No work, no pay, no sick leave

One of the challenges for the construction industry is that there aren’t worker protections in place, such as sick leave and paid time off. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Trump signed on March 18, requires employers of 500 or less to provide 80 hours of sick leave to full-time employees. A challenge to the construction industry is that most companies are small businesses with far fewer than 500 employees. Construction workers are often paid daily and many are part of the informal economy.

“When [our workers] don’t work they don’t get paid,” says James Williams Jr., the vice president and head of organizing at the IUPAT. “Sadly, most members concerned about health and safety have just asked their employer to lay them off. We have a growing number of women in the workforce and a lot of them are single mothers. With schools shutting down, they have had to make the choice of staying home or getting child care and still going to work. Most have made the choice to stay home and take care of their kids.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold, IUPAT has been on the front lines talking to its members, as well as non-union workers, about their concerns and lobbying Congress to make sure relief bills account for the needs of the construction industry. Part of its campaign includes a social video campaign in which members ask for protections like guaranteed health care if they lose work, direct financial compensation if a worker loses their job, and more infrastructure projects to help maintain steady employment.

How possible is safety first?

IUPAT and the Associated General Contractors of America are advocating for extra precautions on job sites to help stop the spread of COVID-19: social distancing (which isn’t possible for a lot of construction work), screening people to make sure they do not have a fever (that said, asymptomatic transmission is a larger problem than we may know), and the proper use of personal protective equipment, which is in short supply due to increased demand from health care workers.

IUPAT expressed concern for construction workers in states without stay-at-home orders because they might not be taking the extra social distancing precautions that are in place in cities and states with stay-at-home orders, which is potentially putting people at risk for exposure. These are also the areas from which IUPAT receives the most reports of exploitation, wage theft, and misclassification of workers.

“Down south—Florida through Georgia, and into the Carolinas—there hasn’t been much from the state level about how our industry should operate because they haven’t shut down as much commerce,” Williams says.

Even taking extra safety precautions isn’t worth the risk for a residential window installer based in Chicago, who wishes to stay anonymous due to fear of retaliation. Illinois has deemed his work essential. Until this week, he had been conducting his work wearing a mask, gloves, and booties and has been carrying hand sanitizer with him. “Being over 60, a diabetic with heart disease, a smoker, and overweight I know I am at a huge risk for myself,” he tells Curbed. “I have decided to stop working for the time being. My risk be damned: Bringing [the novel coronavirus] home to my wife who is a cancer survivor or spreading it to the next home I go into weighs on me more than my own demise. There is nothing essential about making another sale. I don’t get paid unless I do. There are things more important than money right now.”

In some situations, time is what’s really needed to keep workers safe. But in this industry, it comes at a steep price. Contractual obligations usually stipulate finishing a job by a certain date, or else steep fines are levied.

“Our customers, whether it be a school district or someone else, don’t want to say, ‘Hey, you can have another two months to finish the project’ because if they do that, they have to pay the general contractor to manage the project for two more months,” Evan Adams says. “Subcontractors don’t get paid anymore for that. We do the work when we are told to do the work. You’ve got to take your foot off the gas and give some people some breathing room right now when everyone is worried and has to make space. We’ll do the work safely, but if you want to do something really safe, like in the kitchen, you slow down so you don’t cut your finger off. Just slow down. Sometimes that’s what’s needed and that would help.”

In addition to crowded job sites and having to work in close contact, the construction industry is also vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because of the itinerant nature of the business.

“In an urban area, there isn’t a lot of parking around a job site,” the AGC’s Brian Turmail says. “You’d park somewhere and carpool [to the site] and now you can’t have a shuttle bus [because of social distancing requirements]. And in most metro areas, public transit is reduced.”

Many workers have to travel long distances to their job sites and sometimes have to stay in hotels for the duration of the job.

“Housing for our road builders is an issue, too,” Turmail says. “You may be based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but you are doing a job 100 or 1,000 miles away. You’d put them up in hotels and you’d bunk two to a room, but you can’t do that now. How do you make sure you’re not putting people in harm’s way when they’re housed?”

Adams is also concerned about housing. Because his work is specialized, he ends up taking projects all across the state of California. “My guys have to travel for work,” he says. “They’re all on per diem so they’re staying in hotels, which means they’re very close to other people. The hotels staying open are getting harder and harder to find. Not to mention the cleanliness; we don’t know what the standards are of keeping those facilities clean.”

In order to keep his employees safe, COBE Construction’s Ben Olson is trying to assign as much at-home work as possible. The COVID-19-related slowdown is an opportunity to regroup.

“Fifty percent or more of our superintendents are taking OSHA 30 classes online,” he says. “Our project managers are working on professional skills. We’re trying to phase out of work this week and then next week we will be moving into tons of training for a week or two and we’ll see. If we get relief and opportunities with the governor, we’ll try to stay home and try to improve the company so when we are allowed to work again, we will hopefully be better skilled and better trained.”

In the end, whether or not someone feels comfortable working during the pandemic is often a personal decision, and a difficult one at that.

“I have a hard time totally faulting people who are desperate to work and willing to be safe about it,” says Ben Olson. “At the end of the day, everyone has their own personal situation, their own family situation. They could be single, have a full family, or live with older parents. Everyone is feeling some way because of their personal situation. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of fear and some who don’t fear this at all.”

While no one on Carl Pinter’s site has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and he’s working on an essential project, the decision to come to work is challenging. “I have a 5-month-old at home and her immune system is not fully developed,” he says. “At the same time, I am doing a [loan] refinance so I need to maintain steady checks.”

An uncertain future

As the pandemic progresses and the full effects of infection take hold, there is bound to be more change to the construction industry, more shutdowns, and, hopefully, more targeted relief from congress.

“Our contractors are experiencing an enormous amount of uncertainty,” Turmail says. “No one knows how long shutdowns will last, no one knows what the impact will be. Last week, about 28 percent of our contractors said that they’ve had at least one project that has been halted and delayed. Relatively few have had a government order to shut down their projects. This week, about 40 percent tell us that the owners, the people they’re working for, have shut down and delayed projects.”

For some, managing day-to-day uncertainty from the pandemic is as much of a business problem as well as a personal dilemma.

“It’s a moral decision on an hourly basis,” Olson says. “My position is to keep this company running. What’s been so challenging is really how people feel about this and what they think we should and shouldn’t be doing is very individual. I listen to people and their reasons for everything make a lot of sense for them, but it maybe doesn’t make a lot of sense for someone else I talk to. It’s putting a lot of people in really tough positions. Everyone is in a tough position. We’re all going to be sacrificing.”