‘Essential’ construction continues on luxury apartments, even during stay-at-home order

By: - March 30, 2020 7:21 am
construction workers

Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Visit nearly any construction site in Minnesota, and you wouldn’t know the state is in its most severe lockdown in history to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Men and women work shoulder-to-shoulder installing siding on luxury apartments, fitting pipes in narrow trenches and lifting walls into place. They cram into lifts, share tools and porta potties and haul boards and bricks together to keep one of the state’s largest industries sprinting along as if the governor has not ordered people to stay in their homes.

“It’s corporate greed,” said Matthew Hopkins, a union bricklayer and instructor in New Hope, Minn. “People with a lot of money don’t want to lose their whole bunch of money. And the workers of the United States have to do their bidding while they can sit somewhere and stay safe.”

Over the past two weeks, Gov. Tim Walz has moved quickly to slow the spread of COVID-19 by shutting down schools, restaurants and other public places, bringing a large swath of the economy to a screeching halt. His order triggered more than 200,000 unemployment claims, more claims than the state received all of last year.

But the governor’s stay-at-home order is also more permissive than in many other states, with 78% of Minnesotans working in industries deemed “essential,” including all construction workers.

“The attempt here is to strike the proper balance of making sure our economy can function, we protect the most vulnerable, we slow the rate to buy us time and build out our capacity to deal with this,” Walz said when announcing the stay-at-home order on March 25.

Ahead of the Walz stay-at-home executive order, union leaders and contractors alike lobbied heavily for all of the state’s 108,693 construction workers to be exempted from Walz’s executive order.

“It’s very important for the economic security of building trades families around the state to have job opportunities,” said Adam Duininck, the director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “And secondly, in our industry, we know how to work safely on a job site.”

construction workers
Work continues on a luxury apartment building in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Walz has longstanding relationships with the construction industry and the building trades; he’s received more than $544,000 in campaign contributions from trade unions. His tepid response to major infrastructure projects like the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline already threatens to damage an important relationship that has long buoyed his support among some blue collar workers.

Calling so many workers “essential” gives employers broad discretion to decide how much or little to change their operations.

In the construction industry, where contracts are won by promising to finish the fastest for the lowest price — and contractors may be liable to pay massive penalties for delays — the governor’s stay-at-home order has been largely ignored.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the decision to call construction workers essential follows federal guidance on defining critical infrastructure. That guidance includes construction workers who build and maintain hospitals, shelters and power plants, but doesn’t say anything about luxury apartments, office buildings or beautification projects, like the lakeside plaza being developed in Wayzata.

President Donald Trump signed into law the first major federal relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, on March 18, which provides most American workers two weeks of paid sick time — funded by the federal government — if they are affected by COVID-19.

That law goes into effect on April 1 and entitles workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees paid sick leave if they or a family member become sick from COVID-19.

Workers who must stay home because of a state or local isolation order are also eligible. If Walz amends his executive order and deems some construction workers “non-essential,” forcing them to stay home, those workers would be eligible for two weeks of paid sick time.

But Kyle Makarios, the political director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, fears most contractors would lay off workers immediately even though the federal government will foot the bill for the sick leave. Once workers are laid off, they can’t get sick pay. *

Workers don’t want to collect unemployment when there’s work available. That’s why Duininck says he and other union leaders pushed to have all workers deemed “essential.”

“It’s definitely the will of the majority to keep working if we can,” said Duininck. “If people can work safely then that’s what we will always want to do.”

Duininck said they’ve received “thank yous” from union members and contractors alike for their efforts to get construction workers exempted from the stay-at-home order.

But there are many workers who feel out-of-step with their union leaders who pushed for them to be called “essential.”

Some workers puts stickers on their hats reading “Am I essential or expendable?” to protest continuing work during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Labeling all construction ‘essential’ is just a fantasy,” said one union carpenter, who asked to remain anonymous so as to not threaten future employment. “We’re not all essential.”

He says workers on large commercial jobs are likely to spread the virus among each other and their families, while workers renovating homes are likely to spread it to the general public.

“I’ve seen residential workers going in and out of homes with older, poorer people in them,” he said. “And then they’re visiting multiple such sites in a day, making the rounds of different elderly clients’ homes.”

This carpenter and a number of other construction workers have taken to posting fliers around jobs sites in the Twin Cities. They want a paid two-week work stoppage for all non-essential work to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and they want contractors to donate more personal protective equipment like N95 masks from their large stockpiles to health care workers.

“For people who understand what exponential growth is and how that works, you know this problem isn’t going to be taken care of unless people stay put and don’t move around,” said Hopkins, who is a full-time instructor at the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Training Center in New Hope.

Some students there got sick but couldn’t get tested for COVID-19, so the union decided to move all their classes online.

Hopkins works from home now, which he’s grateful for since he has systemic lupus, a chronic disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue. It makes him at high risk of becoming very sick from COVID-19. His partner is also at high risk because she has diabetes.

If he were still working on job sites, Hopkins says he’d just stay home like his oldest son, who’s also a union bricklayer in the Twin Cities.

“My oldest boy, Junior, just said, ‘This is stupid. I’m not doing this,’” Hopkins said. “He was nervous to call his foreman, but he finally told him, ‘I can’t do it. I don’t feel right. This is not what we should be doing. And I’m going to stay home for awhile until things change.’”

Junior’s foreman told him he won’t lose his job and can come back anytime. But choosing to stay home means he won’t get paid, and it’s unlikely he’ll be eligible for unemployment or paid time-off.

Trade workers do have extensive health and safety training, making them better equipped than other essential workers, like grocery store clerks and janitors.

But construction sites are also notoriously dirty and cramped. Few work sites have handwashing stations, although contractors say they aim to make them more widely available. In recent weeks, contractors say they’ve taken steps like increased cleaning and staggered lunch breaks.

“Construction is committed to safety,” Tim Worke, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “The number one priority is keeping workers safe and being able to return home to their families every night.”

Calls to multiple construction companies were not returned.

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Construction workers on a job site near the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Workers say they’re trying to stay farther apart and practice good hygiene, but it’s often not possible.

“If you’re laying blocks, you got two hands on your block and you got to cough, you don’t cover your mouth, you just cough,” Hopkins said.

Even if most workers do their best to limit the spread of germs, just one or two who don’t take it seriously can threaten the entire work site.

“One guy that I’ve been working with seems to regard efforts like not sharing tools and keeping distance as kind of a joke and doesn’t even try,” said one union electrician who asked to remain anonymous to not threaten future work opportunities.

“And I think that that really comes back to we, as an industry, are trying to keep things as normal as possible. And if everything else feels normal, it’s really tempting to just completely go on as normal,” he said.

The Walz administration hopes the swift steps to shut down schools, in-person government business and parts of the economy like restaurants have positioned Minnesota to deal with the coming surge of infections better than other states. But that would mean the broad swath of workers deemed “essential” taking the virus seriously.

Go to any job site and there are plenty of workers who will say they’re not concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’m worried about food in my belly,” said one worker, who didn’t give his name, on his way back to a job on luxury apartments in Minneapolis.

Benjamin Dobrava, a member of Laborers Local 563, was resigned about it: “If I get it, I get it,” he said. “It’s kind of like the flu. If you get it, hopefully you get better. If you don’t, you don’t.”

(Data suggests COVID-19 is both more contagious and far more lethal than conventional influenza.)

“We want to keep working,” said Shannon Stubbs, a non-union finisher. “We don’t want to shut down, but we’re going to leave it up to the governor. We have no idea what the virus is or how it’s going to affect us. So if the government tells us we need to shut down, we’ll trust them.”

Construction workers are in an especially difficult spot because they don’t have paid sick time, and can’t access the emergency paid sick time in the recent federal relief bill so long as they’re deemed essential. If they’re not working, they’re not getting paid. Stopping work also raises the prospect of losing health insurance for some workers, putting them in another precarious situation.

A clear divide has emerged in the state’s workforce between white collar workers who are able to practice social distancing, and blue collar workers who cannot. This divide runs along racial lines as well, with people of color being more likely to have to leave home to continue earning a paycheck.

Governors across the country, including in New York, Ohio and Illinois have uniformly exempted construction workers from stay-at-home orders with strong support from both unions and contractors alike.

In places where the virus is wide-spread, like New York City, many rank-and-file workers have publicly decried their ‘essential’ status, revealing a gulf between workers and their union leadership. Using the hashtag #stopconstruction, workers have posted images to Twitter showing crowded work sites, empty hand sanitizer dispensers and sinks without soap.

Workers in New York City have even walked off the job, protesting what they say are unsafe working conditions. Workers in Las Vegas are threatening to do so, too. The outcry has become especially loud on sites where a worker has tested positive for COVID-19.

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo relented to public pressure and ordered a stop to all non-essential construction. Only work on hospitals, transportation projects and affordable housing is permitted to continue.

* This story was updated for clarity.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.