Colorado construction industry keeps going amid postponed projects, deliveries because of coronavirus
DENVER, CO – NOVEMBER 13: McGregor Square under construction across from Coors Field November 13, 2019.
The usually congested streets in the Denver area are nearly empty for stretches, but they’re not silent.
The beeping of big trucks backing up and heavy equipment can be heard as construction workers, whose jobs are classified as essential during the coronavirus outbreak, continue work on new residential and commercial buildings, renovations and public works projects.
In downtown Denver, construction workers in hard hats and fluorescent yellow and orange vests far outnumber people in suits or business casual dress.
“We don’t take that lightly, that we’re able to keep working,” said Justin Cooper, president of Denver-based Saunders Construction Inc.
So far, there have been few layoffs, said Jason Wardrip, business manager for the Colorado Building and Construction Trades Council. The union represents more than 10,000 workers in 24 local unions and 14 different crafts.
However, the state reported the loss of 3,200 construction jobs in February. There were were 179,400 employed construction workers in the state, not including independent contractors.
“Right now, we’re just trying to keep people who want to keep working to keep working,” Wardrip said.
The state is on track to process 75,000 unemployment insurance applications this week after last week’s 26,000. Restaurants and hotels have been devastated as restrictions have tightened on public gatherings and routine business to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday. Construction is one of the industries declared exempt from the order.
Cooper said people ask why construction is exempt when millions of people across the country are out of work.
“There is essential infrastructure that we support, hospitals, public works projects, the energy grid that we all depend on,” Cooper said. “And by and large, our projects are segregated from the public. Our sites are typically cordoned off.”
Cooper said there’s typically little travel between job sites, which should limit the potential risk of transmitting disease. In addition, construction workers are used to adhering to strict safety guidelines, he added.
The nature of construction work lends itself to complying with the practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, including social distancing, wearing gloves and eye protection, said Mike Tilbury, vice president of operations at JE Dunn Construction, which has offices in Colorado.
The company has modified break and lunch areas to encourage people to keep their distance, has increased cleaning and added sanitation and hand-washing stations and is minimizing meetings, Tilbury said in an email. JE Dunn is starting daily screening to check workers’ temperatures and look for any symptoms and it is prohibiting guests at work sites.
“Of course, no worker is required to report to work if they feel unsafe,” Tilbury said. “We are committed to the health and well-being of our trade workers, and we are thankful that we can continue to provide work to skilled trades during this time of crisis.”
To keep workers safe, Saunders is staggering start times on a building renovation for VF Corporation’s new headquarters in Denver. The outdoor apparel holding company is moving into Lower Downtown.
Although the cranes keep operating and the trucks keep rolling, the construction industry isn’t immune from the ripple effects of much of the work world scaling back. Ken Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a recent call with reporters that more than one quarter of the firms that responded to an online survey have had projects canceled or shut down.
Hospitals and Colorado State University are among those who have postponed projects with Saunders, Cooper said. On the other hand, he added, some hospitals are having work done in their buildings to accommodate coronavirus patients if they need to.
Cooper said there had been problems with deliveries of equipment from China, but those have eased with factories starting back up there. But stone, tile and other materials from Italy aren’t being delivered, “for good reason,” he said.
Elevator inspectors and other experts cannot travel to conduct inspections. However, local governments continue to visit sites or, in some cases, carry out virtual inspections through video conferencing. Cooper said Adams County is using independent inspectors approved by its staff.
Denver has been “ramping up” the online processing of permits, said Laura Swartz, spokeswoman for Denver Community Planning and Development. Now, the in-person service has been closed and the work has switched to online.
Inspectors aren’t keeping office hours, but they’re working and can be reached by phone or email, Swartz said.
“Under both Gov. Polis’ and the mayor’s orders, construction is an essential industry. We are trying to support it,” Swartz said.
Inspectors are taking precautions, she added. “From our perspective, it’s working.”
Following safe procedures and protocols is important, but so is good communication and paying attention to mental health, Cooper said. Saunders executives have 7 a.m. meetings every work day and sometimes on weekends to check in, he said. The CEO emails employees. People are calling clients and supervisors to keep in touch.
“Through four days of this week, we’ve had 12,000 minutes on Zoom (video conferencing) as a company,” Cooper said. “We’re averaging 50 hours a day of Zoom meetings.”
As the health crisis continues, Wardrip, with the union, said he tries to take the psychological temperature of his members. He believes most are doing well, but a few are worried about getting sick.
“Right now, people are freaking out because they don’t have hand sanitizer and toilet paper” in some spots, said Wardrip, who suspects members of the public are helping themselves.
“I tell them, ‘Take it with you. Put it in your duffel bag,’ ” Wardrip said. “We’re construction workers. It’s our job to think outside the box and get the job done.”