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As construction in Maryland continues amid coronavirus, some are grateful for work while others worry about safety

Steve Hull, operation manager of Impact Disaster Services, finds that running an "essential" construction business is not simple during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re staggering workers, trying to make sure there are fewer electricians, laborers and contractors on building sites at the same time. They’re using video when possible to conduct meetings and site visits.

But in the world of construction, workers don’t always have masks, and they’re almost all using the same portable toilets.

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Declared one of the state’s essential enterprises by Gov. Larry Hogan, the construction industry is considered still open for business in Maryland. Many want to build, paint or repair. But it’s complicated.

While other businesses, like restaurants, can switch to takeout or go virtual, construction requires workers to come together in one place. Hogan issued an executive order allowing the health department to shut down any construction site deemed unsafe, but his office has not issued any specific guidelines. Businesses are scrambling to figure out how to keep their workers safe.

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Industry groups, like the Maryland Building Industry Association, are lobbying for construction to continue to be deemed essential, because a few other states including Pennsylvania have labeled it otherwise. Meanwhile, local unions and small business owners wrestle with providing a consistent paycheck while safeguarding their employees from the risk of coronavirus exposure.

The developer behind Port Covington in South Baltimore suspended work on its $500 million construction project of offices, apartments and shops, citing concerns about the safety of workers.

Leaders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 24, which represents over 1,600 workers around Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, called the situation a “double-edged sword.”

“I’m supposed to supply people for the contractors, but I also want to keep my people safe and free from the virus,” said Peter P. Demchuk, the union’s business manager. “I’m torn. And with Pennsylvania closing down, I have to question myself. You just don’t know where the limits are.”

The governor’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said Hogan is adhering to the federal government’s guidelines, which advise to keep construction open. But Ricci said it’s ultimately up to the business owners to figure out if they can continue working normally, while still protecting workers.

“If it is determined that the work can be done safely, with the proper precautions in place, it should continue, especially where it is vital to our infrastructure,” Ricci said.

At stake is an industry that brought in $18 billion last year, or about 4.4 percent of Maryland’s gross domestic product, according to the state’s commerce department. The industry employs roughly 118,000 in Maryland and, according to the Department of General Services, builds more than 1,000 projects each year. Since Hogan declared a state of emergency on March 5, the agency said it’s awarded 49 new construction and design contracts.

Across the country, construction managers are struggling to keep projects afloat because of shipping delays and dwindling funds, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. And many of the nation’s roughly 7 million construction workers are trying to keep jobs or avoid being furloughed, a recent survey from the organization said.

The state health department said it does not track the number of cases on construction sites, but the Department of General Services said five construction sites are shut down due to possible COVID-19 threats.

Some construction workers are afraid to show up.

A construction worker on a luxury apartment building in Odenton said the work site only a few weeks ago started implementing social distancing and mandatory mask usage, as well as installing proper hand washing stations.

The worker, whom The Baltimore Sun is not identifying as the individual is not allowed to speak with the media, said they were afraid to go to work. But this person hasn’t reported the concerns, fearing possible retribution from the employer.

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“There’s been a feeling of worry about why do we have to be here building a luxury apartment? We’re not really essential,” said the worker. “When we’ve gotten the regular flu or cold it runs rampant through our job site, so I can just imagine that coronavirus could do the same thing.”

Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former Baltimore City health commissioner and vice dean for public health practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he would be concerned about a job site with an abundance of people working closely together.

“The risk of a construction site will depend most on how close people are to each other and access to frequent hand washing,” Sharfstein said.

Since March 1, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office has received 43 complaints related to COVID-19, four for construction sites. The rest are in other workplaces. The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment about April’s complaint numbers.

Despite the concerns, most construction managers are trying to figure out ways to forge ahead. It’s nearly impossible to streamline the amount of people on construction sites, let alone social distance. To complete the jobs, haul materials and hoist building frames into the air, it still takes the same amount of workers.

Some sites are trying to stagger when subsets of workers — contractors, electricians and laborers, among others — are on the job to try to keep the numbers down, said Lori Graf, CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association.

Rather than workers trudging through a trailer to sign in for the day’s work, Graf said, headcounts are often being done verbally. And video is used as a substitute for as many in-person interactions as possible, the CEO said.

Residential home building is still happening.

“Anything that you can deem public has been shut down, like model homes,” Graf said. “But people are still building."

Other business owners are reporting problems.

Nina Zunt, who owns EHS Maryland, a general contracting business based in Dundalk, said the majority of her business comes from state and federal contracts.

With more precautions in place, the state is not allowing job site visits, Zunt said, something that always happens before the project cost is finalized. Rather than postponing them, Zunt said site visits are now being conducted by video.

Instead of looking at the Wicomico County elementary school in person that EHS Maryland was hired to paint, she had to rely on a FaceTime video call along with floor plans and photos provided by the district. She also had to hope the nearly $200,000 budget she gave the state would be sufficient.

“You can’t see anything and you don’t know what’s going on,” Zunt said about the virtual inspection. “You just have to hope that they’re telling the truth and there won’t be something you missed that could cost thousands extra.”

Steve Hull, the operation manager of Impact Disaster Services, finds that running an "essential" construction business is not simple during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has had to temporally lay off some workers and struggles to finish projects because some of his Pennsylvania suppliers are shut down because of COVID.
Steve Hull, the operation manager of Impact Disaster Services, finds that running an "essential" construction business is not simple during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has had to temporally lay off some workers and struggles to finish projects because some of his Pennsylvania suppliers are shut down because of COVID. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Steve Hull, who is a partial owner of Impact Disaster Services, said he’s seen a 50% reduction in work, largely because people don’t want others coming into their homes.

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Hull’s company deals with homes and buildings after a disaster such as a fire, hurricane or even a tree falling on a house. The only reason he has any current business, Hull said, is because of a handful of homes that are uninhabitable. Families with less severe impact are telling Hull to stop coming.

“A lot of these people, their basements are torn apart and they’re going to wait that way until they feel safe again,” Hull said. “Even with our employees in masks, a lot of them don’t want us working in their house.”

He also said his company can’t get supplies as quickly or easily as in the past. The permit process has become incredibly difficult, he said, explaining that each county operates their own system and not everyone’s was online.

Ricci said the state will include construction industry representatives in specialized advisory group being formed as it looks to move forward from the pandemic.

But with supplies dwindling and stricter shipping policies being instituted in some areas, the debate about non-essential versus essential construction might end soon.

Zunt, who spent the last six years building her construction business from scratch, already has laid off a handful of employees. Her last round of sanitation supplies and PPE cost her more than twice what she usually pays.

She applied for the small business loans Hogan touted during his press conferences and was rejected.

“I’m terrified,” Zunt said. “We have a commercial space that we own, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it or my staff, let alone my own family.”

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