The highly infectious omicron variant of the coronavirus, currently the most dominant variant in the United States, has hit the country like a tidal wave, and businesses are scrambling to keep their heads above water.
From late December to mid-January, according to Washington Post analysis of Census Household Pulse Survey data for that timeframe, approximately 8.8 million workers reported missing work either because they were sick with the coronavirus or caring for someone else who was ill.
This figure is triple the number from early December, and well over last January's peak of 6.6 million, according to Washington Post reporting, and while the first omicron variant's wave of infection is appearing to slow down in early hit areas, businesses across the country are still feeling the strain just as a new omicron variant is rearing its head.
Construction firms have not been immune to the surge, and many contractors report dealing with an ever-shrinking pool of workers as the virus surges through their communities.
"It just seems like it's spreading so much more rapidly than it has ever before, and even with the people that are really careful," said Tim Spiegelglass, the fourth-generation co-owner of Spiegelglass Construction Company, a small general contractor based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Problems with labor shortages aren't new to the construction field as the industry struggles to recruit young workers and retain older, experienced workers who have the skills and training necessary to run an effective jobsite. But the pandemic, and the omicron wave in particular, is striking a different tone for employers.
Contractors say they are using a variety of tactics to keep jobsites open and running, from quickly bringing in subs to recruiting managers and executives to fill in. Technology is also playing a role for contractors who know how to utilize it effectively.
Spiegelglass told Construction Dive that one of his company's electrical subcontracting firms had, at one point, 75% of their office test positive. The rest of the workers in the office had to quarantine, so he didn't have electrical workers on site for a week.
David Brown, a project executive at CNY Group, a New York City-based contractor, said that the omicron wave was impacting his company's operations the most in their quick-build retail projects, which Brown said typically can take 14 to 16 weeks and require a large volume of workers all at once.
Brown said that across the company's current projects, he is generally seeing a 10% to 15% loss of workers on any given day.
"I happily say that we haven't yet experienced a significant schedule impact that has really created a major challenge for us to deal with, with our clients and owners. But it has impacted things throughout the course of the project," Brown said.
The big scramble
Because of the large numbers of sick workers, construction pros are having to think fast and fill slots as needed, even by executives and other upper-level managers.
Bob Zirkel, Vice President at New York City-based general contractor EW Howell Construction Group, has had to cover projects where supervisors are either stretched through their hours and the company can't schedule them to fill the site.
The problems are exacerbated for smaller contractors like Spiegelglass, who said that his firm doesn't have people "waiting on shelves" to be pulled in. Instead, they just proceed as planned, unless something is preventing them from doing so.
"People think that [substitutes] are just waiting for somebody to call you and get ready to go. And, you know, that's not quite how it works. That just costs more money if you're waiting around," Spiegelglass said.
Spiegelglass said his company has remained adaptable, with supervisors bouncing around different jobsites and project managers staying in the field longer than they normally would, making sure that things are progressing smoothly.
“It just seems like it's spreading so much more rapidly than it has ever before, and even with the people that are really careful."
CEO, Spiegelglass Construction Company
CNY Group's Brown also praised the quick-thinking work of the company's project managers and supervisors, adding that they've been able to carry on work as a result, providing short-term relief when things start to get out of hand and short staffed on the jobsite.
"It's putting to test our project managers and our superintendents, and their ability to really plan ahead and re-sequence work. That's really where we've been finding the bits of success in dealing with these work shortages," Brown said.
Racing for fixes
As part of a longer-term solution, Kevin Ponder, construction director of Tacoma, Washington-based staffing firm PeopleReady Skilled Trades, said busy construction managers can benefit from hosting short training sessions to quickly bring new recruits onto jobsites.
These boot camp-style sessions, which are intended to be held over 2-4 months and rapidly get an either new or replacement tradesperson up to speed on a jobsite, are construction managers' best bets to catch up on work or get work done overall.
Jacob Binke, an executive recruiter at The Birmingham Group, a Berkley, Michigan-based construction recruiting firm, said that technology can help small to mid-sized contractors adapt to a shrinking workforce.
"You don't have to necessarily send your guys out into the site, you can just see everything with a drone, make sure it's all good. The less guys that are on site, the less safety issues you'll have," Binke said.
Ultimately, the current problem with sick workers stems from a lack of available employees even in pre-pandemic times. Ponder said that in order to avoid this, the perception of tradeswork needs to change.
"It comes back to creating a culture that allows people to see training pathways for advancement, what their career could look like, how it impacts [them] socially, how it impacts their community," Ponder said.
Getting out ahead
From his experience, Brown says to plan for the worst, and hope for the best when it comes to scheduling and other issues, and offered forethought as a good way to try to avoid issues later on down the road.
“It's putting to test our project managers and our superintendents, and their ability to really plan ahead and re-sequence work.”
Project Executive, CNY Group
"For the time being you have to plan [work shortages] into your schedules, you have to plan that into the deliverables. I feel like people are really starting to understand that a little bit better now and are more receptive to adding a little bit of time at the front end of a project to address it and to manage it," Brown said.
Spiegelglass said that he wants his employees to realize that taking care of themselves comes first.
"Just like anything else in the world right now, everybody needs to be patient and know that our health is more important than getting the job done on time," he said.