Like many people, Mike Abuls can now say he was unprepared for how hard and quickly the coronavirus outbreak has hit the state and national economy.
But unlike people perhaps in some other lines of work, Abuls can say he’s proud of the steps his industry has been able to put in place quickly to cope. Abuls has helped guide much of that response through both his positions as chief operating officer and executive vice president of C.G. Schmidt and as president of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee.
“Like a lot of business, we were aware that this was a potentially emerging issue,” Abuls said. “But I don’t think we or others within the industry foresaw how quickly it would have an impact on us. And I don’t think C.G. Schmidt or the construction industry as a whole is isolated in that regard at all. In fact, a lot of insurance contracts don’t really contain references to pandemics or epidemics as discernible risks.”
Having been in the Wisconsin construction industry for nearly 25 years – most of that spent at C.G. Schmidt – Abuls has had to extricate himself and his company from more than a few difficult situations. But nothing could have ever quite prepared him for what he’s now having to contend with.
“I have been impressed at how quickly our industry has responded to this,” he said. “One of the great things about this industry is that we are continually adapting to challenges. No two projects are ever the same, and every owner has their own set of expectations and needs and requirements. That’s really come in handy and helped this industry be better positioned than other industries to respond to this challenge.”
Abuls recently spoke to The Daily Reporter about steps being taken, both at C.G. Schmidt and in the construction industry as whole, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (This article has been edited for length and clarity.)
The Daily Reporter: What precautions are you now taking at C.G. Schmidt job sites and recommending, through the AGC of Greater Milwaukee, other contractors take at their sites?
Abuls: We’re trying to make sure people are taking protective measures such as handwashing, keeping spatial separation – making sure you have that 6-foot safe distance. And then your other basic practices: avoid touching your mouth and nose, and all those things. But we are also taking more unusual steps, like being careful about how we deploy labor and staff. We are very mindful of the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. So we are encouraging people to reduce the number of group meetings. We are also very mindful of trying to avoid meetings in any kind of enclosed space. We have a mandatory glove policy to avoid picking up the virus from surfaces. And we have no more communal break areas. People have to eat their lunches separately from each other. On job trailers, we’ll list the superintendent’s cell phone number, or project manager’s cell phone number. We ask people who are looking for them to call the number first rather than coming into the office.
TDR: Are you having employees’ temperatures checked before they come onto job sites?
Abuls: We’re doing daily screenings. If people are ill, we are asking them not to work. And there have been people who have removed themselves form the workforce. We say: Go home and take care of yourself for a few days. The questions we ask include: Have you gone to any high-risk places? Have you had any close contact at home or in your family with someone with the COVID-19 virus? Are you displaying any of the virus’s symptoms? The thing about taking temperatures is that you really can’t do it without getting close to someone else, which puts the health-care worker’s health at risk.
TDR: Do you think Gov. Tony Evers was right to exempt almost all construction from his order shutting down businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak?
Abuls: Well, I think you have to balance the health concerns that are very real and need to be managed with the impact the safer-at-home order has had on the widespread economy. We can have a debate about specific projects. But, in general, the type of work most of us are doing is the essential type of projects. That’s obviously anything with health care. But then we are doing an awful lot of school construction. The schools have already been keeping kids home, causing a disruption this semester. Do we really want to disrupt the semester next fall because projects aren’t complete or ready to go? But if our industry isn’t able to manage this outbreak and keep it under control on our projects, I can see how this concept might need to be revisited in the future.
TDR: Has C.G. Schmidt seen any project canceled or delayed because of the outbreak?
Abuls: We’re in the final week of a renovation of Lowell Hall out in Madison for the UW System. And the state just notified us that will be repurposed as a quarantine facility. We also have one hospitality-related project temporarily on hold now. The hospitality industry is as hard hit as any. The developer of that particular project is going to take a bit of a wait-and-see attitude. But we haven’t got a lot of other major projects put on hold.
TDR: Once things more or less return to “normal” – however you might define that word – do you expect the economy to recover fairly quickly and demand for construction to rebound?
Abuls: I think that’s the hope, although it’s obviously difficult to say for certain. I don’t think the economy was fundamentally flawed. But because the virus has been so invasive, not only physically but also economically, the response has had to be significant. Any time you shut down the economy, even for a short period, it’s going to be tough. And this is not going to be a short period of time. You are talking weeks or months. I think there will be a steep rebound once there is an opportunity. But the shutdown is going to have consequences. I’m hopeful they won’t last long.Follow @TDR_WLJDan