As part of a virtual town hall meeting yesterday, contech company Fieldwire assembled a panel of experts who spoke about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their construction businesses so far and how to keep employees safe, but it is clear that the outbreak and its fallout has left many still looking for answers in an environment of uncertainty.
As an example of how the virus has impacted small subcontractors, Tim Pickett of Encompass AV, an Illinois audiovisual and IT subcontractor, said that his company has lost 70% of revenue opportunities since the virus hit because most of the company's work is performed for businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry, much of which has been ordered closed since the state's shelter-in-place order went into effect. Encompass's two or three large new construction projects are keeping the company occupied for now.
Pickett named cash flow as his primary concern in the coming months, as well as the safety of his employees. Making workers feel secure in their jobs at Encompass has also been top of mind.
Adding to the confusion, Pickett said, are the state's rules about which businesses are considered essential and are allowed to keep operating, as well as when it thinks restrictions will be lifted. "It would be hugely important [for the state] to say, 'This is when we think things will get back to normal,'" Pickett said. "We need to know when this ends to plan accordingly and to have a secure feeling."
Large general contractors, especially those in the healthcare sector, seem to have fared better so far, if using XL Construction, based in California and with offices in the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento, as an example. J.D. Ahearn, senior project manager at XL, said the company has kept busy and has issued virus guidelines and protocols to keep its trade partners and employees safe while they work.
Still, Ahearn said that the initial no-shows by subcontractors and vendor shutdowns as shelter-in-place orders from local governments and the state came down initially reduced its productivity by 50%.
Both Ahearn and Pickett said that they have made it a priority during this time to keep in touch with employees, using email, phone calls and video chats so that everyone remains informed and still feels like they are part of a team.
Mandi Kime, safety director at the Associated General Contractors of Washington, said this type of communication is important for employee mental health right now. Construction workers, she said, are already six times more likely to commit suicide than those in other industries and the uncertainty around the coronavirus could serve to make things more difficult for at-risk individuals. Kime said employers shouldn't limit their communications with workers to email but should strive for the "human touch" of phone calls and video conferencing when possible.
Kime also gave attendees tips, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidelines and on what some of the association's members are doing, on how to protect workers onsite. They include:
- Rotating breaks and lunches in order to reduce the chance of large gatherings.
- Storing materials so that their locations don't force a bottleneck of workers trying to gain access.
- Using technology and equipment options that keep workers separated.
- Increasing the rate of restroom facility service.
- Dedicating someone to make sure that high-touch areas being disinfected regularly.
Staggering the times that trades are scheduled to work, said Ahearn, is another way employers can maximize physical distance between workers.
While contractors in most areas of the country are pushing forward and continuing to work, it's clear that they have or will have a multitude of questions during the coming weeks and months. These include:
- Is the coronavirus covered by workers' compensation?
- Is there company liability if, unknowingly, a worker infects others on a jobsite?
- For contractors that cross state lines, can workers who have been ordered to shelter in place in their home state travel to another state that has not imposed such an order?
- How should contractors handle customers who insist on maintaining a pre-coronavirus level of staffing and adherence to the original schedule?
- When the coronavirus risk passes and operations get back to normal, will contractors have the cash to buy materials and man the projects?
One action contractors can take is to check their contracts for a force majeure clause, which could allow them extra time on projects during this crisis, Brian Perlberg, senior counsel of construction law and contracts at the national AGC, told Construction Dive. Moving forward with new projects, however, contractors should be aware that the coronavirus is something that is now foreseeable, meaning that they should make allowances for it in their contracts.
Perlberg said that contractors have a right to keep their employees and jobsites safe but how they respond to customer requests and other issues will many times be a judgment call in these unprecedented times.