Construction in the Time of Covid

Stay-at-home and social-distancing orders have been issued to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. While some of the essential businesses seem uncontroversial—like hospitals and grocery stores—others fall into a gray area. Construction, which employmillions of people nationwide, is one of them.

While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to housing. Industry groups are pushing for a federal-level designation of construction as an essential business. Individual workers and small-business owners are torn between concerns for health and safety, keeping their workers employed and paid is one important need, while keeping them healthy and safe is another.

Amid a worsening pandemic, just how essential should construction be considered? recently interviewed many people in the industry to hear what they had 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.”

“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.”

 “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.”

“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.”

No matter how long this pandemic lasts, one thing is for sure, businesses and projects that are considered essential need to protect their workers and no one wants to close a job early due to illness. Balancing safety with business is something that all industries will have to manage going forward, construction has already begun.

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