Shutdown not: California builders win COVID-19 “essential” exemption

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Construction executives and contractors have successfully lobbied to win an exemption to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “stay at home” mandate for work during the COVID-19 crisis

After Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down much of California’s economy on March 19 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Sacramento construction executives and elected leaders went into overdrive.

The Sacramento Bee reports that they made calls to builders and developers, encouraging them to keep sending workers to job sites.

“Industry officials said the mobilization was undertaken to prevent a repeat of the Great Recession, when housing construction went dead for several years, worsening a housing crisis that endures today,” the newspaper reports.

State health officials changed the wording on the state website late Thursday night to specifically include construction and home construction as “essential” work that could continue during the crisis. Sacramento County’s similar local order, issued hours earlier and written in consultation with industry officials, already had such wording.

Erika Bjork of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which worked with the construction industry, said workers should be able to practice social distancing, since they  typically do not work close to each other on construction sites.

“We need to keep this engine humming, so when we come out of this we have housing,” she was quoted as saying. “We don’t want to see what happened in the recession.”

Jeffrey Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said the building industry is not as “essential” to day-to-day life as grocery stores or doctors offices, which remain open. But, construction “is absolutely a critical sector of the economy … that the was biggest effect of the Great Recession – that industry shutting down,” Michael said. The state needs construction to continue if it is going to end its housing shortage.

Peter Tateishi, chief executive officer  of the Associated General Contractors of California, said word spread Friday to contractors, builders, and workers that they could go to job sites and continue construction.

“We take it that we are exempted in the work we are doing,” he said, given the revised wording in the governor’s order. “Our members are all working today.”

The Bee quoted him as saying that includes electricians on a runway project at San Francisco International Airport, workers on a new hospital in Santa Rosa, and crews working on freeway improvements to Interstate 5 in Los Angeles.

In Sacramento, work can continue on the $300 million reconstruction of the city’s downtown Convention Center and Community Center Theater.

“We should continue construction downtown and throughout the community so long as the workers practice the necessary social distancing,” the newspaper reported Steinberg as saying. “I believe this is one area were we can safely continue.”

Nationally, the chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, Stephen E. Sandherr, and the President of North America’s Building Trades Unions, Sean McGarvey, issued the following joint statement urging Government Officials to Exempt Construction Work from Regional, State and Local Work Shutdowns:

“Government officials at all levels should treat the construction industry and the work it performs as vital and essential to the critical industries that must remain in operation. Construction workers provide an invaluable economic service, maintaining and improving the nation’s infrastructure, including critically important energy and communication systems, roads and bridges, and social infrastructure, including police, fire and health care facilities.

“Construction workers’ unique skills are essential now and in the coming weeks to construct, maintain, and repair critical infrastructure, and to build temporary health facilities and retrofit and expand existing ones.

“Labor and management construction industry partners continue to monitor and provide guidance on all recommended health and safety job site precautions for construction workers so that proper measures are deployed to ensure a safe work environment for those on the job.”

However, not everyone is convinced that the working environment on many construction sites is safe, nor is much construction work under-way now truly essential.

A plumber in Sacramento, responding to the online posting of this article, write in a comment:

“I work new construction (no service calls). We are currently on a job-site in Tracy, it is “luxury” condos. The smallest unit that we are building is approximately 780 sq ft, and will rent for over $2000 a month.

“I am here to tell you, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “SOCIAL DISTANCING” WHILE WORKING CONSTRUCTION!!!!! I am on a jobsite that has over 300 people on it every day!

“I do no know if these people and their family members are being safe and just going to work and going straight home. I do know that I have seen more people joking about this, than I have seen people taking it seriously. All I have heard from our “bosses” (all trades included) is how much money they would lose if they had to shut down. Where is the care and concern for the people who are making these companies money? What happens when someone catches this virus and they don’t know it and come to work?? The people that are making these decisions are sitting in an office or working from home, they are not coming into contact with hundreds of people DAILY!

“Please do tell me how the average (lower and middle class) family can ever afford to live in a place like this? How is this going to stop the housing shortage??

“Everyone is worried about money and how things are going to progress, but I would like to think that they would be more concerned with the people that they employ instead of how it is going to financially impact their pocketbooks, while they are safe from all the germs in their nice office.”

1 COMMENT

  1. I am a Plumber in Sacramento, I work new construction (no service calls).
    We are currently on a job-site in Tracy, it is “luxury” condos. The smallest unit that we are building is approximately 780 sq ft, and will rent for over $2000 a month.
    I am here to tell you, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “SOCIAL DISTANCING” WHILE WORKING CONSTRUCTION!!!!! I am on a jobsite that has over 300 people on it every day! I do no know if these people and their family members are being safe and just going to work and going straight home. I do know that I have seen more people joking about this, than I have seen people taking it seriously. All I have heard from our “bosses” (all trades included) is how much money they would lose if they had to shut down. Where is the care and concern for the people who are making these companies money? What happens when someone catches this virus and they dont know it and come to work?? The people that are making these decisions are sitting in an office or working from home, they are not coming into contact with hundreds of people DAILY!
    please do tell me how the average ( lower and middle class) family can ever afford to live in a place like this? How is this going to stop the housing shortage??
    Everyone is worried about money and how things are going to progress, but I would like to think that they would be more concerned with the people that they employ instead of how it is going to financially impact their pocketbooks, while they are safe from all the germs in their nice office.

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