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COVID-19 and construction: How a hands-on industry is handling an outbreak

Even as COVID-19 has led to school closings, event cancellations and other social-distancing measures, Wisconsin’s construction industry has largely made no plans to stop work – at least for now.

That’s the best guess of a number of industry officials who were still keeping a close watch on the situation at press time on Friday. But plenty of uncertainty remains.

“Right now, it’s work as usual,” said Kyle Schwarm, marketing and communications director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin. “This is new territory for all of us and for all workplaces. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen.”

On Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared COVID-19 a public-health emergency, and President Donald Trump took a similar step at the national level on Friday. On the recommendation of public health officials, schools have been closed, various events have been cancelled, postponed or cut short and employees have been asked to work remotely – steps meant to limit contact between people and prevent the spread of the disease.

But in an industry that works in the field – often outdoors – it’s less clear how such social-distancing measures will be applied.

Work likely to continue, for now

Terry McGowan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said he expects members of the state’s largest construction union to continue working as usual for the time being. Local 139 hasn’t shut down its training center in Coloma, where 160 union apprentices are taking classes, or placed restrictions on union meetings.

Instructors have instead been telling students to wipe down heavy equipment after use. The union has also asked members to use hand sanitizer frequently on job sites.
Contractors, McGowan said, are also putting precautions in place. Some companies are taking steps to reduce the size of spring safety meetings and are preventing employees from traveling to out-of-state events for fear that they could be quarantined for two weeks – a period of isolation recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

The Daily Reporter reached out to various large contractors for this story but did not receive a response by press time Friday.
COVID-19 might have little effect on many 139 members, McGowan said. Heavy-equipment operators, for instance, typically work outdoors and run machines by themselves. Far more at risk, he said, are people on vertical construction projects, who tend to work in close quarters with others.

“I think most of these construction projects are going to continue forward,” McGowan said. “If it’s an interior job and you’re in closed quarters it would not shock me (if work is limited).”

Some work must go on

Jeff Beiriger, executive director of the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors Association of Wisconsin, said some tradespeople – plumbers, for instance – may find themselves being asked to go into homes where people have quarantined themselves.

But so far, he said, he hasn’t heard of job sites shutting down. And he said he wouldn’t expect many tradespeople to refuse service calls.

“People are trying to continue their operations,” Beiriger said. “We’re not working in cubicles. We have a different relationship.”
And even during an outbreak, contractors will be on the front lines of maintaining infrastructure critical to keep communities functioning, Beiriger said.

Effect on public projects, state credentials uncertain

Government officials were also still devising their response.

Caleb Frostman, secretary-designee of the Department of Workforce Development, said the state’s unemployment-insurance rules need revising.

“DWD is actively drafting scope statements for emergency rules that will provide the UI program with the ability to conform with US DOL guidance while also taking into account the unique and unprecedented nature of the situation,” he said. in an official statement. “The Evers Administration and DWD are working through this rapidly evolving situation to ensure Wisconsin workers who qualify for the program and their families that are affected by this pandemic have the full support of the UI program behind them.”

Kristin McHugh, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said WisDOT is still weighing its options.

“This situation is evolving,” McHugh said in a statement. “Our department will take necessary measures to balance essential services with the health and safety of our employees and the public.”
Jennifer Garrett, a spokeswoman for the Department of Safety and Professional Services, said the DSPS is likewise still considering whether it should make changes to scheduled continuing-education courses that many tradespeople need to maintain licenses. The department, she said, was following guidelines from the CDC and the state Department of Health Services and also taking into account the likely effects of the outbreak on credential holders.

“It is too early to determine what additional steps we may need to take in their best interest, as circumstances continue to evolve,” Garrett said in a statement. “We do welcome feedback from our customers and credential holders, and we will address their concerns at an appropriate time in the near future. Our entire staff prioritizes and remains committed the safety and well-being of Wisconsin residents and visitors.”

At least one private training group, meanwhile, has cancelled courses in the wake of the outbreak. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494 announced on Friday that it was putting its continuing education classes on hold until April 12.

Fears of recession

Mark Johnson, a Milwaukee-based attorney at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, said he’s been fielding questions in recent days that are similar to what employers had been asking at the beginning of the Great Recession.

Among them: When does a company need to notify the state of a mass layoff? What about furloughs? Salary modifications?

Other questions were more specific to a pandemic. Johnson said one employer asked if it was all right to take the temperature of employees when they show up for work.

Many companies are waiting for further guidance from state and federal agencies, Johnson said. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends employers develop a response plan, the agency hasn’t explicitly issued guidelines for how to manage an outbreak at work.

The spread of COVID-19 has also raised questions about how employers should treat workers if projects grind to a halt. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, states can adopt guidelines allowing them to pay unemployment-insurance benefits in the event of an outbreak. A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, however, didn’t respond to questions about the program by press time Friday.

Johnson said most company officials are simply trying to make sure everyone stays healthy.

“I haven’t seen anybody be anything than reasonable,” he said.

One comment

  1. Why is no one concerned with construction workers? We are faced with no place to wash hands and having to use ports a Johns for bathrooms. We have no protective measures, cannot stay 3’ apart much less 6’ apart. Is the government not trying to stop the community spread? Some jobs in America have more than 500 people working on them everyday.

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