As many construction industry employers try to stay afloat during the coronavirus threat, employees are concerned about their jobs but also about the risks they could be facing if they show up to work.
Some are concerned about how social distancing can work in tight elevators and trucks and have taken to social media to voice complaints about their safety and whether they are at risk for taking the virus home to their families.
“This is causing trouble at home,” one New York City builder tweeted. “I’ve heard so many builders saying their wife’s pleading with them not to go to work. But no work, no income, means trouble further down the line."
These types of concerns have led several jurisdictions to halt most construction during the outbreak, including Boston, New York state, Washington state and Pennsylvania.
Construction Dive readers have chimed in with their thoughts on the topic, as well as their concerns about working conditions, their health and the health of their families.
"Working in Washington D.C. as a carpenter on a construction site where some employees still have to take public transportation to get to work. there’s no social distancing, and there is not water on the job to do hand washing. Everyone shares a portable toilet. Everyone works together on the sites to help each other get the task done for that day. How is making a high-rise apartment or office building essential? We should not be going to work at this time." Anonymous. Maryland
"Shut non-essential construction sites down. As a wife and mother of construction workers, I completely agree with this. We should not see our workers jeopardizing their health and their family. These men and women are now working without much-needed safety equipment since it is not available. Many share a (portable toilet). How sanitary can these sites be? We need to see relief for companies who may have to delay jobs, especially those that are not essential." Judi Kiefer, Northern New York
"As an HVAC installer, most of the jobs we are doing right now aren’t essential. And even though I’m not getting paid, I’m choosing to stay home." Anonymous
"What about the workers? I am a salaried superintendent building large apartment complexes. I have about 100 workers every day from all over the state, all working in the same building going from room to room. Yesterday, I found a sprinkler guy sick as a dog. He had visited every room in the building. If he coughed or sneezed in just a few rooms — and the virus we know lingers in the air for four hours and stays on surfaces far longer — he just pretty much infected every single person on the job.
“Our corporate offices and regional offices with salaried workers closed down so they can remain safe, yet we are required to show up and work in a giant, germ-filled Petri dish of a building. I have three months of vacation saved up but can't use it because the project is on a strict timeline. This is a giant disaster waiting to happen. It is not if but when. So, how do us construction guys stay safe? I am scared as hell going to work every day, but I do not get an option unless I just quit, and I cannot do that." Anonymous, Orlando, Florida
"Part of my work involves site visits of existing, heavily-populated facilities to obtain dimensions. I was asked to perform a site visit during a ... mandatory shut down. I was extremely uncomfortable having to be forced to do this. The client was not willing to modify the deadline, and I couldn’t complete my work without performing the site visit. I was basically forced to do the site visit[under] threat of being kicked off the project, blamed for all the delays, and the other team members complained that I was threatening their involvement as the potential delay would be the reason the project will be “cut from the budget” if I didn’t perform the work. I feel helpless in this situation." Anonymous
While it is understandable that many workers right now are concerned with their health and want to avoid situations in which they are exposed to individuals who may be infected, attorney Phillip Russell with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak, & Stewart in Tampa, Florida, said that fear may not be enough to justify not showing up at work, at least from a legal standpoint.
"A generalized issue is not enough of a recognized hazard [for an employee] to say, 'I'm not coming to work because I generally fear exposure,'" he said.
Even if employers are not enforcing social distancing on a jobsite, Russell said, "CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance is not law." The threat needs to be a site-specific hazard.
However, employees have the right to be safe, and if there is a specific threat, like someone on the project is exhibiting symptoms or has been diagnosed with a contagion like the coronavirus, then a coworker could have two pathways to relief.
One is that the employee could call for an OSHA inspection under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Section 5(a)(1) requires that employers provide employees a workplace free of hazards that could result in death or serious harm.
If the employee is punished or terminated for reporting the hazard to the employer or to OSHA, then that workers could file a whistle blower complaint under Section 11(c) of the OSHA Act.
The coronavirus is new to the legal landscape, he said, the fact that the CDC has put everyone on notice could be the basis for an OSHA inspection or even a personal injury lawsuit down the road, but those are still currently "what if's."
Russell said that an employer's first priority is employee safety and health, but a close second is the health of the company's operations, which are threatened if workers choose not to come to work when a specific threat has not yet been identified. "Businesses must survive," he said.