A week ago, Dave, a union painter in New York City, was on a job painting school buildings with a city-contracted company. There was “no extra sanitizing being done” at the worksite, he said, and workers were “on top of each other,” not able to keep 6 feet between them, as coronavirus prevention guidelines recommend.
Dave, who asked HuffPost not to use his real name, feared that continuing to work would put him and his son, who has respiratory problems, at risk of contracting COVID-19, especially since he didn’t know how many of his co-workers might have been exposed to the coronavirus.
“I’ve never heard of anyone that was told to self-quarantine at all,” he said of his fellow construction workers. “Anyone that has decided to self-quarantine for themselves basically has been disciplined or threatened that you won’t have a job back... which is absolutely insane, in my mind.”
Within a few days of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 27 order suspending all “nonessential” construction projects in the state as part of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, nonemergency school construction was halted and Dave was transferred to a new site, where he said he felt safer because he was working alone. But, like many construction workers he’s spoken to, he’s still uneasy.
“We are not health care workers. We did not take an oath to perform our duty during a time of crisis. I am a painter, and I sincerely believe the work I am doing is absolutely not essential.”
“Are these really ‘essential’ jobs at this time during a health pandemic?” he questioned, texting from his worksite. “We could drastically decrease the rate of exposure and spread if these jobs were shut down, even if it was for a few weeks. We are not health care workers. We did not take an oath to perform our duty during a time of crisis. I am a painter, and I sincerely believe the work I am doing is absolutely not essential.”
The coronavirus pandemic has frozen cities across the country, leaving millions without work or under orders to stay at home. But in many communities, workers in hard hats continue to stream onto construction sites, buzzing around cranes and scaffolds, because many state, municipal and county governments have deemed the building trade an “essential” business.
Public health advocates say that letting laborers, electricians, carpenters and painters continue with business as usual in the midst of a public health crisis could spell disaster for people working in what were already some of America’s most dangerous jobs. Labor advocates, meanwhile, worry about construction sites shutting down and leaving millions jobless. And workers are either braving the risk of infection if they remain employed or are jobless, facing impoverishment and the loss of their health care as the pandemic intensifies.
Even during normal times, construction — where annual wages average about $35,800 — is one of the nation’s most hazardous occupations, with more than 1,000 work-related deaths in 2018 alone — roughly 1 in 5 of all occupational fatalities. The fear of contracting COVID-19 adds to day-to-day worries about falls, electrocution and sprains. And because of occupational exposure to harmful inhalants, construction workers are at high risk of respiratory ailments, which could make them particularly vulnerable to the virus.
James Williams, general vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), points to another reason construction work is even riskier during a pandemic: “Social distancing is almost impossible.”
Safety questions abound on worksites where physical hazards intersect with an invisible virus. How do you stay 6 feet apart when perched on a scaffold with a co-worker? How do you wash your hands regularly with only portable toilets on-site?
“How do you stay 6 feet apart when perched on a scaffold with a co-worker? How do you wash your hands regularly with only portable toilets on-site?”
Based on concerns his union members have expressed, Williams said many were ambivalent about continuing to work. “We’re hearing it from our members that their health and safety is more important,” he said, especially parents with children. “We’ve taken the position that the health and safety of your family and yourself is way more important than continuing to work in what could be an unsafe environment.” Yet, because the union brokers employer contracts, “we can’t tell [members] not to go to work.”
But for those who keep working despite the risks, Williams added, the union will “continue to represent our members and will pull them out of harm’s way at all costs. Though we may be deemed essential, we are absolutely not expendable.”
Several construction labor organizations have joined construction industry groups in supporting a continuation of “essential” construction work while urging employers and workers to adhere to safety standards and encouraging workers to stay home if they are sick or feel unsafe on the job.
In Riverside, California, Mauricio Garavito, a carpenter working on a hospital site, has been making modifications to his usual work regimen under the direction of his safety director and project manager, including, disinfecting tools every day and working on staggered shifts to minimize contact among workers. “We now know that it’s a different pace, not the normal pace that we’re used to— building things and going fast. Now we’re just more precautious,” he said.
But leaving workplace safety decisions up to employers means they will likely put profits before workers’ health, warned Peter Dooley, senior project coordinator of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “There’s not enough pushback and not enough consequences for running operations that aren’t safe or healthy for workers.”
Dooley said the huge variance in local and state policies on construction work underscores the need for consistent guidance from policymakers and public health authorities on what construction work, if any, should continue while the pandemic rages.
Some cities and states have applied elastic standards for what is considered essential work. In Miami County, Kansas, for example, the standards include “construction or repair of housing” and “commercial construction” under their definition. Illinois’s stay-at-home order exempts construction on housing and “business infrastructure.” Initially in New York, the governor had allowed both commercial and public projects to continue, but after sharp criticism from labor and political leaders — and news reports of workers falling ill and dying of COVID-19 — the state limited construction work to “essential” projects, including “roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, himself a former construction worker, ordered a blanket freeze on nonemergency construction in mid-March, and Pennsylvania suspended construction except for emergency repair and health care facilities.
Even if construction work is not suspended by government decree, work is still evaporating; as the economy slumps and more regions issue stay-at-home guidance, projects are being delayed or canceled. IUPAT estimates that as many as half of construction sites nationwide have already been shut down.
The recently passed $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package expands unemployment benefits but falls short of the union’s demand that lawmakers fully replace lost wages and shore up union members’ health care and pension plans. Even if laid-off construction workers can access unemployment funds, many could soon lose their union health care coverage. By not working, they run the risk of not qualifying for health insurance because their multi-employer plans are based on the number of hours worked, Williams explained.
Moreover, even if they continue working, construction workers may not be able to take the leave time they need to tend to their health or their families’ health without losing pay because they often lack paid family or medical leave benefits. Although the recent federal relief measures do include limited paid leave extensions, millions of workers are excluded, and low-wage workers will recover only part of their normal income if they temporarily stop working due to COVID-19.
The most vulnerable construction workers are almost completely excluded from the new COVID-19 relief packages: undocumented day laborers, who usually pick up informal jobs by congregating on a corner, in a parking lot or at a local worker center. Without papers or a steady employer, they are ineligible for extended unemployment insurance or the cash payments allocated to households. Advocates fear the coronavirus will exacerbate the chronic labor abuses that already plague the day-labor workforce, including frequent injury, wage theft and discrimination.
“One of the most striking things about this whole situation for me is that it is exposing just how vulnerable the [day laborers] are, just how much the regulatory systems and the employment standards have failed to provide for workers... to weather this sort of crisis and this sort of economic slowdown,” said Emily Timm, co-executive director of the Texas-based Workers Defense Project.
Luis Valentan, director of the Pasadena Community Job Center in California, where dozens of immigrant workers regularly gather seeking short-term construction jobs, said that since the center was forced to shut down in mid-March, the staff is helping some workers arrange jobs by phone and online. Safety is his main concern. He especially worries about the workers who are older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus. “When you see them, it’s like there’s no hope,” Valentan said. “There is no faith right now.”
In Birmingham, Alabama, day laborer Margaro Vargas plans to keep working as long as he can. His boss has told workers to stay apart while working and report if they start noticing any symptoms. Without health insurance, he worries about getting infected and is relying on his employer to uphold safety measures to reduce the risk of viral spread. At the same time, he is concerned about losing hours amid the economic slowdown. “I prefer to stay at home,” he said through a translator. But he’ll keep going to work while he can. “We have to pay the bills.”
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