Editor's note: The following is a guest post from James Lang, a superintendent for a major general contracting firm in central New York. The opinions expressed are not Construction Dive's, but the author's own.
I am a superintendent who works in the field daily and I have seen firsthand how some local construction companies in my area are pushing forward on projects that are far from essential and are putting the health and safety of employees and their families, some of whom are already elderly or have underlying conditions, at risk in the name of schedule and profit.
As cities and states have moved to shut down all but essential services, many in our industry have said that construction workers should be exempt, but I think this mindset disregards the health of all the people who work closely together on construction sites.
We need to think about more than just the CEOs and owners of construction companies who want to keep work going because they may be penalized if work stops.
Even in New York City, which represents 5% of the coronavirus cases worldwide, companies are pushing forward in the name of schedule and profit. In the midst of a shutdown aimed at keeping people safe, the leaders of our sector are looking for loopholes to push construction in order to keep schedule, avoid liquidated damages, and keep profits up.
Forget the schedule, forget liquidated damages, forget profit. These are people's lives.
The message that we should be hearing is that we have a highly contagious virus spreading through certain states and, as health and safety are constantly called out as “the most important thing” to every construction company, if you are on a project that is building something that is less than essential to your community you should be staying home, staying healthy and keeping our hospitals from overflowing.
Despite liquidated damages we need to work with owners to come up with solutions that will allow us to keep our workforce healthy while avoiding these damages as best as we can. Liquidated damages, however, are far less valuable than the lives of the people who do the work we need done.
We need government officials, whether at a state or national level, to clearly define what types of construction work should be continuing. Having a new coffee shop, stadium or restaurant is not essential right now and we should not be risking the wellbeing of the people we rely on the most — such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, laborers etc. — in order to keep owners happy.
We should not be searching for the definition of which construction projects are exempt from the shutdown, looking for loopholes so we can continue to cram workers into tight spaces (after they have signed their COVID-19 safety talk for the week, of course) we should be searching the list of exemptions to see how we can best keep our men and women in the field safe.
I am not a statistician nor medical doctor, but from what I have read and understand about this virus, the construction industry is doing just about the opposite of what it should be doing. The way that I see it, the longer we put off shutting down construction, the harder our field will be hit in the long run. Jobsites are a breeding ground for this virus, it reportedly lives in the air for hours and on plastic and metal surfaces for days.
As a superintendent, I'm on the front lines every day, trying to get individuals to use their personal protective equipment, keeping them 6 feet apart and stopping them from sharing tools. Lost revenue and schedule slip are not nearly as valuable as making sure you have a healthy, reliable, skilled workforce in the coming months when there very well may be actual construction emergencies that need to be staffed.
Pushing our field employees on projects that are far from essential puts them at immediate risk and our entire industry (which is already lacking labor) at a much greater risk in the long run.
We don’t know where this is going yet but if it goes in the direction of worst case scenario we may need to be building temporary hospitals in the upcoming months and we won’t be able to if all of our workforce is being hit directly by this virus. Pushing our field employees on projects that are far from essential puts them at immediate risk and our entire industry (which is already lacking labor) at a much greater risk in the long run.
The only compelling argument to keep construction moving is the wages of the men and women who are actually putting work in place every day. The energy of our construction associations and the presidents and CEOs of every construction company in America should be working toward a solution for keeping the people who we rely on every day afloat while also keeping them healthy. Now is the time for construction companies to work together (remotely, of course) to show that, as a community, we can take care of our people and rise out of this stronger than before, with new protocol implemented that can make workers lives better.
This is an opportunity for all of us to look at the way we do business and reevaluate how we get things done, the pressures we put on the people we need and the long-term effects of all our choices and actions. The construction industry and the people who run it are hardy; we experience issues that people would not even think of and come up with methods to capitalize on benefits in even the worst situations. At this time we need to sit back and take a minute to see how we can make the best of this pandemic.
We’re not going to face it the way we are all used to, taking advantage of empty buildings and schools to improve schedule, we are going to need to take the time to look at what we really need to move forward and how we can better provide for the workers that we rely on so much.
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