For many construction companies, 2020 has been a year of reckoning. The public outcry following George Floyd’s death in police custody this spring, coupled with nearly 20 reported racist acts at construction sites across North America, have spurred contractors to look inward at their efforts to combat hate on site.
“The racial justice movement in our country has made companies, industries and associations sit down and take a really hard look at ourselves and how we can do better,” said Michael Bellaman, CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors.
Indeed, contractors such as Turner Construction and Mortenson were some of the first U.S. businesses to respond to protests against police brutality and racial injustice with statements calling for an end to inequity.
“Recent events are a stark and painful reminder of the consequences of ongoing, undeniable racism that exists in our communities,” Peter Davoren, Turner’s CEO, wrote in a letter to employees on June 5 in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “It is heartbreaking to see such ugliness. At Turner, racism and discrimination of any kind, in our offices and on our project sites is not and will not be tolerated.”
Turner, one of the largest contractors in the country, has backed up its CEO’s words with action in response to subsequent incidents of hate on its jobsites this summer. The New York City-based firm shut down two large Ohio projects for anti-bias training in August — a $1.7 billion Facebook data center project in New Albany and the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium in Cincinnati — after the company discovered graffiti containing discriminatory slurs around those jobsites.
On a project in Seattle, the company said it fired a subcontractor that would not comply with such training.
Although Turner did not provide details as to exactly how much time was lost on those projects, Davoren told Construction Dive that workers on jobs where training is considered necessary usually stay home for one day while organizers prepare, come into work the next day for an eight-hour training and then resume work on the jobsite the following day.
The company does not take a shutdown lightly, Davoren said, and it is intended as a “clear message that we understand the anger and pain felt by so many people as a result of long-standing injustice.”
Turner also stopped work on a project in Des Moines, Iowa, he said, for five days to accommodate 400 workers, who were trained in eight-hour sessions in groups of 10 to 12.
On that job, Davoren said, Turner made a commitment to owners to absorb any scheduling delays. “It was that important,” he said.
Since then, Turner produced a training video, posted on YouTube in English and Spanish, that spells out its zero-tolerance policy in detail. The video says racist or offensive tattoos must be covered on the jobsite, even in summer, and that no offensive stickers or symbols, such as Confederate flags, will be allowed on vehicles parked on Turner jobsites. The company also stressed its commitment to prosecute anyone who commits a hate crime at its sites, to break contracts with firms that violate these standards and introduced an anonymous tip line to report any incidents.
The video concludes with a call to action for all contractors: “We need everyone to be anti-racist and take a stance against hate so that we can change our industry,” the video’s narration says.
Another contractor, Canadian firm EllisDon, has dealt with multiple incidents of racism on its renovation of the Michael Garron Hospital since this summer.
In response, it has beefed up security and surveillance on the site, offered a $5,000 reward, conducted safety stand downs and offered employees, subs and unions diversity and inclusion education.
But in a public admonishment that illustrates how important eradicating racism in construction is to large institutional clients, Michael Garron Hospital CEO Sarah Downey chastised EllisDon for not doing enough to step up its actions to find the perpetrators and prevent any more acts of hatred.
“Despite your best efforts to call out these insidious hateful acts and heal with our community, it is not enough. More action is needed,” Downey wrote to EllisDon CEO Geoff Smith last month. “We are looking at you to be a leader in dismantling systemic racism on this construction site, in your industry and as a partner in this community.”
For its part, EllisDon said it will continue with its efforts to hold those responsible for the acts on its jobs accountable. “We will not stop until the perpetrators are found and permanently evicted from our industry,” the company told the CBC.
Swift action like Turner’s and EllisDon’s at the jobsite level is important because it sends a message to all involved that racism will not be tolerated. There is sometimes a disconnect between corporate office initiatives and actual conditions in the field, according to industry observers.
Maura Kelly, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon who has studied outcomes by race and sex in the trades, said that project costs and deadlines sometimes take precedence over investigating discriminatory incidents on site.
“What’s actually happening between people on the jobsite doesn’t rise to as much of a priority as many people within the industry would like to see,” she said. “There just hasn’t been the focus, time and attention there.”
“We are ready to do the work of understanding what is racism, what is unconscious bias and what we are going to do to address it to make construction more inclusive.”
Corporate lean manager, Rosendin Electric
Sources interviewed for this series said the tone on site is often set by the foreman or superintendent, which can pose challenges in an industry that faces a labor crunch. Good superintendents, even racist ones, aren’t likely to be fired because they’re so hard to replace, according to sources.
Turner’s firing of its subcontractor in Seattle notwithstanding, when asked by Construction Dive whether construction companies were taking real steps to root out racism by firing racist superintendents or foreman, no industry sources could point to specific examples of that happening.
Brynn Huneke, director of diversity and inclusion at the Associated General Contractors of America, points to the fact that its Culture of CARE initiative, launched in March before the racial unrest began, saw a huge uptick in the amount of new construction firm signatories, from about 111 right after Floyd’s death to more than 380 as of this month.
The program is designed to help contractors create more welcoming workplace environments for staff, particularly those from diverse demographic backgrounds. These companies — including Barton Malow, Consigli Construction and Stacy and Witbeck — have pledged to ensure their workplaces are free from harassment, hazing and bullying.
“While there are lots of companies in the construction industry that have diversity and inclusion efforts and have had them for a long time, I think this has reignited their desire to continue to grow and push and examine their own cultures, policies and practices,” said Huneke.
Beyond lip service
Yet top-down initiatives and pledges must consist of more than a written policy, said Sean Reid, president of Arrowhead Coaching and Facilitation Solutions. Giving lip service with no follow through calls into question the overall integrity of the company and says to employees and stakeholders that it does not live by the words it promotes, he said.
“It’s counterproductive for a company to go to the trouble of developing a diversity plan and then stick it on a shelf to gather dust,” Reid said.
Deryl McKissack, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based construction management for fee firm McKissack & McKissack, agrees that the time for action is now. She praised companies that are on the front lines of handling these issues, but called out others that just seem to be jumping on 2020’s inclusivity bandwagon.
“At least they’re trying to do something,” said McKissack, a Black woman who has worked in the construction industry for nearly 40 years. “Some companies are really excelling at it. Others are copying what those leaders are doing. And then there are some that I feel are just doing window dressing.”
Breaking down barriers
Clark Construction is an example of a contractor attempting to address the problems holding people of color back from success in construction. The firm employs a range of strategies to directly tackle the roadblocks facing women- and minority-owned construction businesses.
For instance, on the $1.5 billion Kansas City Airport’s new terminal project, Clark-owned developer Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate and its design-build partner, Clark | Weitz | Clarkson, have provided a range of support to the more than 100 Minority Business Enterprises and Women Business Enterprises on the job.
With the goal of 20% MBE participation and 15% WBE participation, the team so far has awarded more than $220 million in contracts to these types of groups, including 28 prime contracts. It has also employed a variety of programs to remove barriers that typically impact small, disadvantaged, minority and women-owned businesses from securing contracts to work on projects of this magnitude, according to Geoff Stricker, Edgemoor senior managing director.
Clark has set a goal of 20% minority and 15% women contractor participation at the $1.5 billion Kansas City Airport new terminal project.Clark Construction/From the Ground Up Photography
The project team set up a “Pay Without Delay” program to ensure those firms are paid within 14 days for their completed work. Contractors of color interviewed for this series have cited intentionally slow payment as one way systemic racism impacts them.
The Edgemoor team’s initiative also offers mentoring and workforce training programs and has arranged for low-interest loans to help small firms acquire equipment and working capital, another big hurdle for firms of color. Since the project began in 2018, more than $4 million has been loaned out to MBE and WBE firms, Stricker said.
So far, those efforts appear to be making an impact. Stricker said the Kansas City project has had no race- or gender-related issues and that the project team has an ombudsman on hand to confidentially address any issues or disputes that might arise.
On the Kansas City project, the Edgemoor team also is running free executive MBA-style programs for WBE, MBE, veteran-owned and disadvantaged businesses, something Clark has offered for more than 15 years. In the three classes that have graduated so far, 84 local businesses have been represented. Of those, 12 small, local businesses have been awarded contracts, Stricker said.
“We really try to address all the issues that affect men and women who want to work in construction, both from a personal standpoint and a business aspect,” said Stricker. “We realize that with large contracts like these, minority- and women-owned businesses and other small businesses can take on a great scope of work if given the opportunity.”
Open to all
Acknowledging the need for more solutions, construction firms large and small also have renewed their internal efforts to keep their offices and jobsites free of racist acts.
San Jose, California-based Rosendin Electric, a company founded by Mexican immigrants whose workforce is made up of 46% female and minority employees, recently announced new measures to prevent jobsite racism at work, including a zero-tolerance policy for hate on the job and new channels for employees to report racist behavior anonymously.
“We are ready to do the work of understanding what is racism, what is unconscious bias and what we are going to do to address it to make construction more inclusive,” said Stephanie Roldan, Rosendin’s corporate lean manager.
Many construction firms are also beefing up their diversity and inclusion efforts, mandating anti-bias and bystander training and adding people of color to their boards and C suites.
Contractors interviewed for this article said that fixing construction’s racism problem won’t be easy or quick, but that they are in it for the long haul.
For Jorge Quezada, Granite Construction’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, it comes down to construction companies turning to the range of voices within their ranks to help fight the issue.
“We are a stronger organization for addressing the elephant in the room and leveraging our collective diverse experience,” said Quezada.
He reports to the executive team on a quarterly basis to discuss the progress of the company’s related programs like “Courageous Conversations,” a forum that provides a safe environment for employees to discuss racism and other issues. Other company programs include a regular podcast and weekly leadership study groups.
Reid, the business consultant, said programs like these contribute to and support the recruitment of workers into the company and help retain workers and increase productivity.
“Most importantly, they send a message to the broader business community and to the broader stakeholder community focused on construction that this industry is open to all who want to participate in it,” Reid said. “To those people who want to be part of building our cities and our communities and our infrastructure.”
Kim Slowey and Jenn Goodman contributed to this report.