Once it was obvious that the coronavirus outbreak had become a major threat in the United States, local and state governments began shutting down businesses they deemed nonessential. But even then, most construction work was considered essential in many areas of the country.
In New York, for example, construction projects remained open on a limited basis under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s PAUSE executive order signed March 20. But later that month, the administration clarified that only specific essential and emergency construction services could move forward.
Trade unions were instrumental in persuading the New York state government to shut down projects that were previously allowed to continue. “Trade unions definitely took a stand,” said Andrew Richards, attorney and chair of the construction practice group at Kaufman Dolowich Voluck LLP in New York City.
Union members were fearful of being exposed to the novel coronavirus and some workers reportedly had become sick while working on certain jobsites. A considerable amount of pressure from trade unions, as well as New York City lawmakers, was brought to bear on the governor, Richards said.
While many union representatives were in favor of keeping the construction industry moving forward at first, there was a shift in opinion once serious questions were raised about how safe workers were while trying to do their jobs.
One of the most prominent New York City union voices is Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (Building Trades). “For as long as this pandemic continues”, he told Construction Dive, “the focus of the Building Trades will remain twofold: to protect the health and well-being of our members and to do everything possible to keep essential worksites safe.”
The emergency projects allowed to continue in New York are those considered necessary to protect the health and safety of the public and those that would be unsafe if shut down. Essential construction includes roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals, healthcare facilities, affordable housing and homeless shelters. Those companies that break the new construction regulations face a $10,000 fine.
“Given the unprecedented nature of this crisis, and the necessity for some work to continue on New York’s essential, large-scale infrastructure projects, we have partnered with the real estate industry and union contractors to institute measures that go above and beyond CDC guidelines to keep essential construction sites safe,” LaBarbera said.
Massachusetts has not banned all construction, but cities including Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have. Last week, an estimated 17,000 construction workers refused to work on jobsites. The North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) District Council 35 said they would not provide labor on several projects throughout the state because of safety concerns and allegations that owners and general contractors are not enforcing social distancing, providing necessary personal protective equipment and not following other COVID-19-related protocols.
But not all trade unions have called for project shutdowns.
For example, the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters (SRCC), according to a message to its more than 52,000 members in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, advised workers to report to projects as scheduled as long as they are asymptomatic and are comfortable doing so. The council also advised its members to practice social distancing and follow all other recommended hygiene and protective measures.
An SRCC spokesperson told Construction Dive that as long as its members are able to follow CDC guidelines and other safety protocols, it is in favor of them continuing to perform “essential work.”
North America's Building Trade Unions also teamed up with the Associated General Contractors of America to ask government officials at all levels to make construction an essential service and exempt it from regional, state and local shutdowns.
So why are some trade unions set on shutting down projects while others are not?
First, said Richards, some workers may be facing an urban commute and a dense work environment, which means they will be sharing mass transportation with many people and working in closer proximity to each other than their suburban counterparts.
“When you have employees that have to use mass transit to get to and from work, I think that complicates things dramatically,” said attorney James Perry, an employment and labor expert with the law firm of Dickinson Wright in Detroit.
The type of work also matters. It is likely easier for contractors to ensure that workers keep the recommended distance on highway projects, Perry said, than it would be to keep crew members away from each other when they are working on the inside of a building.
Transportation infrastructure projects in the Northern states also have a narrow window of time in which they can make progress before cold weather and snow set in, giving project team members an added incentive to keep working. Some employers, he added, pay into supplemental unemployment and benefits funds that will see highway, bridge and other workers who rely on seasonal work through dead periods, but that depends on their union contract.
The relationship between the employer, owner or developer and trade union also plays a big role in how willing the union is to call for a shutdown, Perry said. Past run-ins could influence current negotiations.
“It depends on how cooperative everyone wants to be,” he said.
By all indications, however, the deciding factor for all trade unions as to whether to send their members to work or advise them to stay home is how safe the jobsite will be.
“Member safety is our top priority,” said the SRCC spokesperson.