Construction companies lobby to keep working

Construction Companies Lobby to Keep Working as Coronavirus Spreads
Push for workers to be deemed essential highlights tension between economic and health goals

The construction industry is pushing to keep projects up and running even as some begin to shut down around the country to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In Washington, D.C., and in state capitals, industry groups are lobbying to designate construction workers as essential personnel exempt from stay-at-home orders. The industry employs 7.6 million Americans, or 5% of the workforce.

That effort has had mixed success. Illinois and California have deemed construction essential but Pennsylvania and Washington state have ordered building sites closed except those deemed essential, such as health care facilities.

New York state at first exempted construction but amended its order Friday to shut down all projects except those deemed critical, such as those involving roads, transit, bridges and health care.

Last week, industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote to President Trump, urging his administration to exempt construction workers from local quarantine orders.

Signs related to the pandemic are posed at the construction site for Diageo’s new bourbon distillery.

“Shutting down the ability of our industries to serve our nation and maintain our physical infrastructure will impact the economic viability of the entire nation, not to mention numerous businesses,” they wrote.

Their plea highlights the trade off between battling the spread of the virus and keeping the economy on track. On Tuesday, President Trump said he hoped to have the country back at work in just two weeks—a timeline at odds with the advice of health professionals.

The construction site for a Diageo distillery In Lebanon, Ky., on Thursday.

Construction accounts for 4.1% of gross domestic product, but the impact of a nationwide shutdown would spread to manufacturers of building materials and equipment as well as to architects and engineers, said Ken Simonson, chief economist of Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group.

While most construction sites remain open, a growing number are shutting down in response to state orders. A survey by the Associated General Contractors released Friday found that 39% of companies had projects stopped by clients or local authorities, up from 28% last week.

As sites close, more workers will likely turn to unemployment benefits, further swelling the ranks of recipients. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported a record 3.28 million applications for unemployment benefits in the week ended March 21.

The $2 trillion rescue package approved by Congress won’t be enough to help the industry, the AGC said. The group wants lawmakers to spend more on infrastructure, grant relief from losses on federally funded projects and protect construction worker pension plans.

Industry groups say construction workers are less at risk from the virus because they often work outdoors and wear protective equipment such as masks and gloves. About 13% of respondents to the AGC’s latest survey said they knew of an infected person on their job site, up from 8% in last week’s survey.

North America’s Building Trades Unions has joined industry groups in urging local authorities to keep sites open. Its president, Sean McGarvey, estimated that “tens of thousands” of its roughly 3 million members had been laid off. Legislation enacted in Congress last week gave some construction workers sick days for the first time, Mr. McGarvey said.

On Friday, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said the union would support New York state’s decision to close non-essential construction.

“Everybody’s concerned about being out of work,” Karl Pogelschek, a laborer in New York working on the overhaul of LaGuardia Airport, said before New York state’s decision.

Construction is a seasonal business that keeps many workers idle in the winter. Many had been expecting to get back to work in the coming weeks, Mr. Pogelschek said.

At sites around the country, the epidemic is changing the rhythm of work.

Workers who assemble at morning meetings are reminded to keep their distance from each other and asked if anyone feels sick or has been exposed to the virus, said Frank Sciame, chief executive of New York City-based Sciame Construction LLC.

Meetings of 10 to 15 people that were typical before the pandemic have been downsized, said Stephen Gray, chief executive of Gray, an engineering, design and construction company. The Kentucky-based company has offices throughout the U.S. and some 300 active projects.

The distillery construction site. Industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged the Trump administration to exempt construction workers from local quarantine orders.

“Most job sites that are run well are run with a high level of interaction and require people to be face to face in these trailers,” said Mr. Gray. “Now we’re breaking up meetings, making them much smaller and cleaning these trailers up and sanitizing them more frequently.”

Some in the industry say extra safety protocols are insufficient. Even before the pandemic, ensuring workers followed safety guidelines was difficult, and adding new measures probably will be tough to enforce consistently, said a construction superintendent in New York state who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the press.

“I don’t think that right now we should be putting guys at risk building things that are less than essential for their communities,” the superintendent said.

Keeping workers a safe distance apart involves complex choreography on a construction site as workers shift between tasks, said Steve Lesser, an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff. One worker not showing up because they are quarantined or caring for someone who is sick can hold up other jobs on the project, he said.

Delays can quickly turn a profitable project into an unprofitable one, said Richard Sussman, an attorney at Rosenberg & Estis, P.C. Although most borrowers are protected from default in case of unforeseen circumstances, they still must repay principal and interest on their loans.

And unfinished projects may pose a safety hazard, said Mr. Pogelschek, the worker at LaGuardia Airport.

“You can’t walk away from a trench in the street,” said Mr. Pogelschek. “It’s no different than doing a roof on your house. Once you start, you’re going to have to finish.”


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