On March 21, the chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America and the President of North America’s Building Trades Unions issued a joint statement recommending that the government exempt construction work from shutdowns.
“Government officials at all levels should treat the construction industry and the work it performs as vital and essential to the critical industries that must remain in operation.”
Certain states, like New York and California, have done just that — deeming construction jobs, of all types, as essential while other cities and states have halted operations or let construction companies make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Business Insider spoke to construction workers around the country to learn the mixed feelings they have about working during this pandemic.
Manhattan structural and steel construction worker speaks out
“I’m completely disturbed by how reckless the government is being, by classifying construction as a whole as an ‘essential service'”, said Ian Brown, an onsite Project Manager for a structural and miscellaneous steel contractor in Manhattan.
He believes the unions should push harder for the government to be more specific about what types of construction jobs are essential. Brown said that his projects, which include an office build-out and new construction, are non-essential.
He’s not the only one. New York City construction workers and residents have been vocal about their displeasure with Governor Cuomo’s decision. Some have spoken out in local media. Others share their concerns on social media. There’s even a hashtag for the movement: #StopConstruction.
This backlash may explain why on March 26, Cuomo said at a press conference, “I think some construction is essential.” He then acknowledged that “It is something we’re looking at.”
Brown summed the situation up this way: “Deeming all construction jobs as essential leaves the door open for legal action, such as breach of contract if a company decides to halt construction. Until the government clarifies what type of construction is essential, we are putting hard-working men and women, as well as their families, at risk.”
A construction worker in Oregon fears for his health
A steamfitter and welder working in industrial construction, Robert Jenkins, of Springfield, Oregon, agreed that construction work is essential now.
“Things need to be repaired, maintained, and improved because if we let them go for the next 60-90 days it would be a lot more expensive for companies and would probably cost a lot more jobs in the long run,” he told Business Insider. But he’s also worried about his health.
“I’m not particularly fond of working during the current outbreak because I am a childhood asthmatic and I hear it affects people with prior issues disproportionately, but I can’t really afford to not work.”
Jenkins said he’s doing what he can to stay safe, “but job sites are usually very dirty and you never really know. I wear my gloves and try to stay away from others when I can.”
According to the CDC, there’s a possibility that people with asthma are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.
A safer work environment makes people feel safer about going to work
The subdivision Folsom Ranch in California continues its construction work on building new homes. Along with social distancing guidelines, crews were given more soap and hand sanitizer and asked to wash their hands multiple times a day.
John Hedge, a framing superintendent on the Folsom Ranch site, feels strongly about the importance of this project, even in the time of coronavirus. “We are essential,” he said. “It’s a necessity. We’ve been in a (housing) shortage in this state for a long time. And we’re not even close to getting out of it.”
In Denver, a CO-based Phoenix Masonry developed a specific cleaning process for workers at its Colorado Springs water treatment plant job site. Two crews use a four to one bleach ratio, per CDC guidelines, to spray machinery and forklifts, twice a day. In addition, team members were instructed to stay six feet away from each other.
“Our General Contractor mandated that if you have a fever, you can’t come back to the site until you are without one for 24 hours,” said foreman Erik Garber. “And if a worker hears someone coughing, he’ll tell us, and we’ll ask that person to go home.”
Garber himself missed four days last week after losing his voice made his team members uncomfortable. “I didn’t feel sick, or have any other symptoms, but I was told to go home.”
Kevin Crumb, one of Garber’s crew, summed it up: “I feel safe working on this project.”
A renovator of the San Francisco International Airport said the work is essential
Joe Gann, who is on the electrical team at Rosendin, based in San Jose, California, has been working on San Francisco International Airport’s major renovation and expansion for three years and said that halting construction would jeopardize more than just deadlines.
“Airport operations are a living thing. Any little thing could make a huge impact. For example, if a communications link goes down and you can’t route baggage throughout the system, planes can’t take off,” Gann said. “Keeping the airport running smoothly is a critical service.”
Rosendin construction workers recently reached an agreement by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). If a construction worker wants to go on furlough during the pandemic, that person can come back to the original project and area of responsibility.
“We wanted people to feel safe in the current environment, and still feel secure in their jobs,” said Matt Englert, Rosendin Chief Operating Officer. To date, he said, the company has not laid anybody off.