This article is part of a series of conversations that Construction Dive reporters and editors are having with industry leaders about the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their firms and their markets. To add your voice to the discussion, email us here.
Stephanie Schmidt is president of Poole Anderson Construction, a 96-year-old construction firm in State College, Pennsylvania. Since mid-March, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf shut down all nonlife sustaining businesses, the firm has been adapting to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Here, Schmidt talks with Construction Dive about furloughs, safety protocols and finding the most comfortable face coverings for her employees.
How has the coronavirus affected your firm?
Gov. Wolf's order included all non-health care construction jobsites in the state. Poole Anderson had one active healthcare project — a medical office building that was deemed essential — but we had to secure and shut down all of our other jobsites.
We also had to immediately make decisions about what our management and trade staffing would look like during this undetermined length of time, as well as analyze the new reality for the halted projects and projects in preconstruction. Most importantly, we had to quickly assess how to keep workers on our healthcare project safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which remains our No. 1 priority.
We made the difficult decision to temporarily furlough roughly 40% of our staff while we worked with fellow contractors and Associated Builders and Contractors’ Pennsylvania chapters to engage with state lawmakers on appropriate steps to reopen, including new safety protocols. Luckily, we did receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, so we were able to bring all staff back within three weeks, about a week before construction fully reopened on May 1.
What new measures have you put in place?
We are fortunate to have a team-oriented company culture, and every manager across all departments had a seat at the table to help make decisions about our office and jobsite COVID-19 plan. Since we had one project that remained up and running during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, we were able to quickly identify and implement thorough revised safety measures to keep our workers safe on the jobsite and in our two offices. We also had to adapt to new protocols, such as only one worker per 500 square feet of building, as well as social distancing and mask requirements.
We created site- and office-specific signage with QR codes to link all employees, including subcontractors, to our daily prescreening form about symptoms and exposure, which needed to be completed prior to entering the jobsite or office. These forms were automatically filed in a jobsite-specific folder on our project management software and flagged for management as necessary, which helped immensely from an administrative perspective.
We also implemented safety, hygiene and cleaning procedures in accordance with the CDC and state regulations. All of these early steps put us in a much better position to quickly implement new safety and hygiene protocols and procedures once the rest of our projects were allowed to reopen.
How will you keep workers safe going forward?
First and foremost, a team effort has really been essential as we navigate this new normal on our jobsites and maintain the highest standards of safety. We’ve put a greater emphasis on hygiene on jobsites, including adding additional handwashing stations and ensuring all port-a-potties include hand sanitizer.
While our construction trade workers already wore personal protective equipment prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, adding a required mask was causing safety glasses to fog. We evaluated different safety glasses until we identified one that worked for most employees, as well as a variety of different face coverings to ensure people are as comfortable as possible.
In addition, we’re taking steps to minimize interaction and exposure, such as having digital staff meetings and limiting visitors in the offices and on jobsites.
What are your biggest concerns these days?
While our biggest concern remains the safety of our workforce, we’re also concerned about projects moving forward, including what the different construction markets will look like in the near and long term. We typically have a lot of work in the higher education and hospitality markets, which have naturally taken a hit. However, our grocery client continues to add new projects, which has been a bright spot.
How does the future look for your firm?
We are projecting that most projects have been delayed about a month but are working collaboratively with our clients to determine how to meet the original deadlines. We are still assessing the impact on our year-end revenue.
While everyone in the construction industry has been treading lightly — especially as backlog is down about a month compared to the same time last year, according to Associated Builders and Contractors’ Construction Backlog Indicator — we’ll continue to assess how we can grow within our current markets and explore new opportunities as the COVID-19 recovery process continues.