Pandemic effects ripple across the construction industry

Strange new construction equipment: Because construction sites typically lack running water for hand-washing, Hoffman Construction is constructing and setting up its own hand-washing stations. (Photo courtesy of Hoffman Construction)

By Don McIntosh

Should I stay or should I go? Across the building trades, opinions vary about whether to stay working or stay at home in the midst of a pandemic.

“Half the members are reaching out to say, ‘Keep the jobs open any way you can,’” says Laborers Local 737 Business Manager Zach Culver. “The other half say, ‘Why are we still working?’”

‘Essential’ workers

In Washington, numerous construction projects were shut down by order of Gov. Jay Inslee. His March 23 emergency declaration requires every Washingtonian to stay at home through May 4 unless they’re out to get food, medical care, or exercise — except for those deemed “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers.” Those include workers in the health care, food, energy, water, and transportation sectors, plus construction workers on projects in those sectors and on  publicly financed low-income housing projects. That meant construction projects like office buildings and entertainment were put on hold.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home order, meanwhile, banned gatherings and closed 32 types of businesses where social distancing is impossible. But it left construction unaddressed, leaving it up to the contractor or project owner to decide whether to shut down temporarily. Most owners and contractors have kept projects going, and most workers have remained on the job.

“What we’re telling our membership is: ‘It’s your choice,’” Local 737’s Culver told the Labor Press.

“Whatever you choose to do, Local 737 will have your back,” Culver wrote in a letter to members, “whether you’re sheltering in place or continuing to build the Northwest.”

Union members have the right to decide for themselves

That’s been the pattern across the union building trades. IBEW and the signatory electrical contractor group NECA signed a nationwide agreement March 16 that says no adverse action will be taken against any employee who refuses to be present at a jobsite if they believe there is imminent danger of contracting coronavirus.

“If you choose not to work during this time, that’s your decision,” Bricklayers Local 1 Business Manager Matt Eleazer told members in a March 24 letter. “We understand that many members have reasons that they can’t work, or simply don’t want to leave home at this time. If that’s your case, Local 1 supports you. We also understand that there are many members who are willing to work through the crisis. And again, if that’s your case, Local 1 supports you.”

Journeyman bricklayer Kirstie Brown says she wants to work. She’s got three kids to support, and a disabled father at home on dialysis, and she hadn’t yet recovered from the winter layoff season when she was laid off from a job as the epidemic hit.

“I’m responsible for all the bills,” Brown said. “I can wear face masks.”

Staying safe on the job

For some building trades workers, like crane and heavy machine operators who work solo in enclosed cabs, maintaining the recommended 6-foot distance is doable. For others, it’s challenging or impossible. To prevent injury, the Bricklayers Local 1 contract says moving 70-pound blocks into place is a job that requires two workers. But it can’t be done by workers who are 6 feet apart. The same is true for lots of other tasks throughout the trades, like when laborers pour concrete. Workers who can’t keep a distance are wearing masks or bandanas for protection.

To keep workers on the job and honor commitments to safety, union construction contractors are changing job sites in lots of ways.

Ness Campbell Crane president John Anderson has been filling up spray bottles with house-made disinfectant in the office and delivering them to job sites so workers can wipe down surfaces. When the pandemic hit, Ness Campbell even purchased a van to shuttle operators from Intel’s off-site parking lot, to get them out of shuttle buses.

Hoffman Construction vice president Dan Drinkward says his company is deploying staff in blue vests to serve as “social distancing coaches” on construction sites to encourage safe practices. Hoffman is also limiting capacity in personnel lifts and elevators, limiting the use of shared tools and sanitizing them between uses, dramatically increasing hand washing stations and toilet facilities, and staggering start times and lunch times to limit the number of workers who come on or off the job or eat lunch together at any one time. Large stand-up shift meetings and safety meetings are being eliminated; instead, superintendents issue the orders of the day to smaller groups of foremen, and they relay that to workers they supervise.

At Intel, where Hoffman is the general contractor, spots at lunch tables are taped to keep workers from sitting shoulder to shoulder. To relieve crowding on shuttle buses, construction workers are being directed to use Intel’s closer-in parking lots, which were made vacant when white collar employees were told to work from home.

Some project owners determined that more drastic action was called for. Adidas shut down its headquarters expansion project for the time being. So did Facebook with its data center project in Prineville, and the company offered $4,000 payment to construction workers who were sent home.

To be sure, some building trades union members are also staying home, and individual workers and in some cases whole crews are walking off the job. And some of those who remain are there because they need the money, or worry about the consequences.

“It can be tough for a rank-and-file member to make that call,” Culver says. “Because the job might finish while you’re off. And for the next job, the contractor might assemble a crew from those who were there at the end of the last job, and there might not be a job for you to return to.”

Elsewhere in the country, some unions have pulled their members off jobs altogether. In Massachusetts and across New England, the Painters and Carpenters unions directed their combined 17,000 members to stop working as of April 6, except for those building health care facilities to address the COVID-19 crisis. And the Massachusetts Building Trades Council voted unanimously to call on the governor to suspend all non-emergency construction.

In Oregon, the state building trades council has focused on raising safety awareness on the job. It created a joint COVID-19 task force made up of several dozen union and employer representatives who meet online twice a week. A subcommittee of the task force is conducting scheduled visits to construction work sites. Accompanied by an Oregon OSHA staff person, delegations of five to seven task force members started visiting sites this week to verify that contractors and workers are abiding by safety practices that are recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Our members’ wellbeing is our number one priority,” Oregon Building Trades Executive Secretary Robert Camarillo told the Labor Press. “Work is our second priority. We’re not willing to sacrifice anybody.”

Operating Engineers Local 701 Business Manager Jim Anderson said some of his members are taking voluntary layoff to stay safe or to take care of kids who are home because of school and daycare closures, but Local 701’s out-of-work list isn’t bigger than usual at this time of year. And members who do take a layoff tend to have banked hours that allow them to maintain union-provided health insurance. Employer health contributions for all hours over 120 worked in a month go into a reserve, and members can bank up to six months of health benefits. Meanwhile, Local 701’s hall is closed to visitors, regular union meetings are cancelled, and the training center classes are cancelled for now, but reps are as busy as ever, focused on fostering safe practices like social distancing.

“As long as it’s a safe working environment, then let’s keep working,” Anderson said. “It all boils down to communication with the members and the contractors.”

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