Construction hasn’t stopped in N.J. despite coronavirus. But maybe it should, workers say.
(Construction on the new Newark Airport Terminal One began last year.)
While the coronavirus has led to layoffs and orders that many others work from home, construction workers largely remain on the job.
They cannot work from home, but some are worried about what they may bring home to their families if they continue showing up at busy, sometimes crowded job sites as Americans are cautioned to social distance and, in some cases, self-quarantine.
A laborers union worker involved with building a new terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport says more than 250 people are laboring in close quarters to construct the facility and many are worried about either contracting the virus or unknowingly spreading it to others.
The site is teeming with iron workers, carpenters, plumbers, electrical workers and pipefitters, he said, and while many are privately grumbling about their concerns, most are afraid to speak up.
“I think everybody is just keeping quiet and complaining every day to each other,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of retaliation on the job. “You have all these people here. It’s possible you can get this virus and take it home and spread it. I feel like people aren’t taking this seriously.
“I have a [family]. The last thing I want to do is bring that home.”
Workers were told Thursday that a carpenter was diagnosed with coronavirus and is out of work, he said.
A spokeswoman with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said there have been no reports of a possible infection involving a construction worker at the project.
Laborers are given standard precautions by their bosses, the worker said — don’t shake hands and try to stay six feet away from others — “but that’s impossible.”
“Every other business is shut down or working from home and we’re out here working, possibly carrying the virus. Who knows? It’s not like you can just go out and get tested.”
The port authority spokeswoman said contractors leading the project are reminding workers of COVID-19 safety protocols, providing hand-washing stations on-site, increasing cleaning of restrooms and ensuring hand sanitizer is readily available.
Another construction worker involved with building a new catering facility for United Airlines in Newark expressed similar concerns about his worksite. He also declined to give his name.
“Construction workers don’t get sick days … you don’t work and you don’t get paid,” he wrote. “We all are going home to family at the end of the day worried … Why hasn’t our job site been closed down?”
Haskell, the Florida-based design and construction company leading that project, is on heightened alert over the virus, tracking new developments and keeping up-to-date with the latest government guidance on workplace safety, according to Dave Balz, a vice president with the firm.
The company, which reports annual revenue of slightly more than a billion dollars a year, has 60 to 70 projects going in the United States and abroad at any one time. No one has been diagnosed with the virus at its worksites and no projects have been halted, Balz said, but the company is remaining vigilant.
“We’re going to work hard to keep people safe every day and we’re going to try and see over the horizon as well to what steps we may need to take in the future,” he said Friday morning.
The company is asking workers to self-report any symptoms and report any travel to virus hotspots or contact with anyone who has been diagnosed. They are also reminding workers of the same guidance everyone else is receiving about social distancing and cleanliness.
Work was temporarily halted by the company at the catering facility construction site Friday afternoon as part of a safety stand-down that will last through the weekend, Balz later confirmed.
None of the workers are sick or showing signs of illness, he stressed, and the move is not a shutdown.
“We want to make sure everyone is focused on the work and not distracted,” he said. “It is simply out of an abundance of caution given the environment we are in.”
During that time, project managers will assess whether any changes are needed before work resumes, he said. Workers will learn over the weekend when construction will begin again.
“It may be Monday morning, it may not,” Balz said.
State officials have not responded to requests on Friday about whether construction projects will be temporarily halted because of the virus.
New Jersey has reported 890 coronavirus infections and 11 deaths so far, while the global death toll now exceeds 10,400.
Limited COVID-19 testing services are now available in the Garden State, but those eligible for testing must have a fever of at least 99.6 degrees, a cough and shortness of breath.
(Another shift of medical staff prepare to start woking at a drive-through testing center for COVID-19 in Paramus, on Friday.)