Workers divided over staying on job

Construction industry’s workers divided over staying on the job during coronavirus shutdown

(Sellen Construction workers at an Amazon office building jobsite at 7th Ave and Blanchard St. in Seattle on Tuesday, before Gov. Jay Inslee’s order takes effect Wednesday evening.)

[New Gov. Inslee edict: Most construction work is not authorized during coronavirus shutdown]

Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Monday mandate, workers on projects including new Amazon office buildings and the KeyArena overhaul won’t be allowed to come to work starting Wednesday evening.

That will alleviate the concerns of some workers about novel coronavirus transmission at construction job sites, which can be hard to keep sanitized.

But in a move sure to please the construction industry, Inslee’s order contained a wide-ranging exemption for construction of health-care facilities, transportation infrastructure, housing and other “essential” projects.

“You can’t stop building in the middle of SR-520,” said Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 15,000 construction workers across 19 unions. “Maintenance workers at Seattle Housing Authority. Those are essential services.”

The exemption for construction didn’t come as a surprise to industry watchers. Even in the three states with the most restrictive shelter-in-place orders — California, Illinois and New York — construction workers are exempt from requirements that most workers stay home.

Among other states where governors have ordered residents to stay at home, only Michigan did not specifically exempt the construction industry — though building executives there told local media they expect work to continue.

In the run-up to Inslee’s order, local construction industry groups and union officials were advocating that Washington’s 259,000-person construction industry be designated essential. They insisted health and safety plans to protect against COVID-19 infections were already in place.

“Home construction … is necessary to maintain safety, sanitation and economic security,” wrote Building Industry Association of Washington executive vice president Greg Lane in a letter to Inslee on Monday afternoon.

The Washington branch of the Associated General Contractors of America echoed similar arguments made by its national coordinating body, said executive vice president David D’Hondt.

Industry groups and unions said contractors have already started taking steps to slow transmission of COVID-19 on job sites, including directing employees to increase personal space, reducing the number of workers on break at the same time and prohibiting large meetings when possible.

But some construction workers, who spoke to The Seattle Times on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from employers, said on many job sites it’s impossible to take proper precautions against the virus.

In under-construction residential buildings, multiple workers are typically crowded into unventilated rooms as small as 600 square feet, said a construction worker on a large project in Seattle.

“Everyone and their mother is going to say, ‘We’re essential, we’re essential,’” he said. “But building … an apartment building is not essential if 1-7% of your workforce is going to get infected doing it.”

Housing construction, including apartments, is slated to continue under Washington’s new stay-at-home order.

Sellen Construction, one of the region’s largest general contractors, Monday morning decided to suspend construction across dozens of job sites for two weeks out of concern for employees’ health, CEO Scott Redman said. The nearly 320 employees affected will receive full pay during the pause in business.

“It has been clear that the health risks of employees at job sites, as well as the distractions they’re dealing with, have combined to create some construction safety risks,” Redman said.

“We keep hearing that the local health system is experiencing a spike in cases and we’re trying to do the right thing by our employees and do our part to flatten the curve.”

A superintendent completing noncritical renovations to the exterior of a multifamily building in Seattle, though, voiced regret he’d likely be told to stay off the job.

He said he thinks his work is especially important now that people are spending even more time at home, where they’re cooped up and anxious about the spread of the virus.

“If people have one safe place, that’s their house,” he said. “They want a safe place to come back to. This is all they have these days.”


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