Contractors in Massachusetts have been coping with confusion, as Boston's Mayor Marty Walsh clashed with Governor Charlie Baker over whether construction was "essential" and could continue in the midst of statewide and local stay-at-home orders. But by month's end, residential contractors and trades working on one-family to three-family construction were deemed essential in Boston as well as statewide. That left typical remodelers and builders free to work, but required to focus on something state and local authorities all agreed on: the absolute necessity for safe work practices on the job.
Balancing act. It's a tough balancing act, remodeler Peter Feinmann told JLC. "I always say our two goals are to make sure that we have happy clients and that we are financially viable so that we can continue to make happy clients. But I told my people, 'There’s a new sheriff in town and it’s the most important one: which is how do we make sure that we’re being safe and healthy first.' Everything we need to do has to take that into account."
"Most of my office is working remotely from home at this point, but my field staff really does not have that choice," said Feinmann. "So we have guidelines for our field staff to make sure that they are keeping distance from our subcontractors. We’re telling them we need them to start being observers and not helpers with our subcontractors, meaning communication should be done from a distance. We’re also working really hard to make sure that we’re separating our spaces from our clients. We are also minimizing how many people on the subcontractor group can be on the site, we’re only allowing one subcontractor on the site at each time, and we’re minimizing how many people are allowed depending on the size of the job, and we’ve also structured some new guidelines for our carpenters, to make sure that they’re not sharing tools."
Even with those cautions in place, two of Feinmann's field carpenters have declined to continue to work. "I have two people who live with elderly family members. And they chose to not work during this time," said Feinmann. Both carpenters have been laid off so that they can collect unemployment, he said.
Jobsite solutions. Boston building and remodeling contractor Kevin Cradock shut down operations right away when Boston Mayor Walsh ordered construction to stop in the city. But now that Walsh has amended the city's written order to clarify that work can continue on projects of three units or fewer, Cradock's people are back at work. He was just gearing up when JLC contacted him on Tuesday, March 31.
Cradock said, "We are having one sub at a time. And if there is more than one person, say there were two electricians, we would require that they work in remote areas and independently. And we’re doing that same thing with our crew: If we have anything going on inside and we have a subcontractor, we are going to be working remotely from them. We are requiring gloves at all times, we are requiring eye protection at all times. We are requiring respirators. We are not really getting into disposable masks because they are just so hard to come by. We are observing the social distancing guidance. But if for some reason, like two people have to pick something up, or there is any hand to hand work, where people have to come within six feet of each other, they are going to be putting on a respirator."
Frequent hand-washing is required by the state guidelines. Cradock has rigged up hand-washing stations using five-gallon buckets. Said Cradock: "It’s a couple of buckets, and it’s got a spout on it and it’s got a foot pump, so you have your water supply, and then the other bucket is a drain, it’s got a thing of hand soap zip-tied onto it. So you walk up to this thing, it’s hands-free except for pumping the soap into your hand. You pump your soap into your hand, you give it a couple of pumps with your foot, the water comes out of the spout, you wash your hands and rinse them. The state guidance said we could use hand sanitizer or hand wash, but we’re going with hand wash. And we’re recommending that people wash their hands all the time. That’s really the best way to deal with this."
New practices. Boston plumbing and heating contractor Jim Lavallee told JLC his business has been hit hard by the Boston work stoppage. "We had a massive layoff," he said. "Right now we’re down to only 15% of our employees." Lavallee is waiting on his remodeler GCs to start back up: "If the GCs aren’t working, we’re not working. As soon as they can open up the jobs, we’ll jump back in with them, as long as we can make it safe, and they can keep our guys safe."
Safety is a major undertaking, Lavallee said. "It’s almost like our employee is working as a surgeon," he said, "from the time they start in the morning to when they go home at night. We can only have one guy come in at one time — we're not allowing anybody to work in the same place at the same time. So you think about a guy getting out of his vehicle when he comes to work: They come in, get out of their vehicle, put the gloves on, open the door, go in and get whatever material they have to get, the material has to be sprayed down and made sure that that’s all clean before they take and touch that. Then we load it into the vehicle, they have to change gloves, wash their hands … and that’s before they even leave the shop in the morning."
Lavallee's company places a heavy emphasis on apprentice training. That's all on hold for now, he said: "We have a very strong workforce development program. So we have a lot, we have apprentices. So typically we work in two-man crews. That’s basically been eliminated. So we only allow one person in the vehicle at a time, traveling. And even working on sites, we make sure that -- if we were to send two guys to a site, they would have to basically work separately. We have to rely on the GC to allow us those areas to do that. So if we show up to a site that has too many men on the job, one of two things: Either our lead tells the GC that he has to clear an area for our guys to work for the day, or we just leave the site. I don’t allow my guys to put themselves in harm’s way like that."
New pace. These precautions have an obvious impact on the pace of work. "That whole thought process of hurry up, let’s get stuff done — that’s been thrown out the window," said Lavallee. "Everybody is trying to be safe and considerate, so what typically would take a week is probably going to stretch out to a month."
With so many people laid off, keeping his company ready to resume operations is a challenge, Lavallee said. "Right now we have six apprentices laid off. And we just want to stay in contact with them and let them know that this is not permanent. We’re staying in communication, and if the government sets up the Payroll Protection Plan that they’re talking about, instantly we’re bringing the kids back. Even if they’re just going to sit around, we’re bringing them back. Because the last thing we want to do is go through losing them — we have some rock star kids that we don’t want to take a chance on losing."