The COVID-19 pandemic that emerged earlier this year turned life upside down for everybody. It brought the economy to its knees and had an impact on virtually every sector, including the construction industry. What had been an especially prolonged and robust boom cycle for the
region’s building trades came to an abrupt halt in mid-March when most major job sites
temporarily closed down.
Nearly all GBPCA contractors suddenly found themselves with little work. And Local 12 plumbers went from essentially full employment to about 80% unemployment almost overnight. Most sites have since reopened, although they have been operating under a new wave of regulations and restrictions.
The pandemic has presented a variety of unique and urgent challenges. For example, Local 12’s training center had to quickly replace in-person classes with remote learning. “In modern times–certainly in my lifetime–this has been unprecedented,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager.
As information about the pandemic started to emerge and evolve, everyone was trying to understand the coronavirus and evaluate its threat. When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh initially ordered the shutdown of construction sites in mid-March, it was unexpected, Fandel says. “As painful and disruptive as it has been,” he adds, “it seems like it was the right call. When we look back, the approach and the level of seriousness that the mayor, governor, and others have given this issue will be validated.”
Along with Boston, Cambridge and Somerville officials also shuttered construction sites around the same time. The three cities account for most of the major building projects in the region. Some construction did continue in other locations. And some public projects and others that were deemed essential remained open in Boston and elsewhere. But the impact from the pandemic response was far-reaching.
Contractors confront COVID fallout
According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, he went from 170 employees down to 50 as projects such as a mixed-use development at Somerville’s Assembly Row closed down. Some work continued in earnest, however.
“We were busier than ever with our office staff,” Dionne says, explaining that employees took advantage of the downtime to focus on upfront work such as coordination and computer design of projects. To accommodate staff members and allow enough room for social distancing, the company is seeking additional office space. Some employees have been working remotely from their homes.
Likewise, designers and budget managers at GBPCA contractor, William M. Collins Company, also decamped to their home offices while a skeleton crew held down the fort at its Braintree headquarters. Ed Strickland, the shop’s president, estimates that he furloughed about 80% of his crew when most of the company’s projects shut down. He credits the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for helping to cover overhead for the employees that remained.
“We didn’t have any income coming in,” Strickland says. “With a three-month gap, we’ve essentially cut out one quarter of our revenue for the year. With the PPP loan, we marched on.”
Training center adjusts
With the pandemic taking hold, the training center cancelled its classes in the middle of March. “We had to scramble to figure out what to do after we shut the doors,” Fandel says. “We had to shift gears quickly.”
According to Rick Carter, the training center’s director, he and his staff had been talking about introducing remote learning options for a while. Like many initiatives that may have otherwise taken months or years but were rapidly deployed due to the conditions imposed by the pandemic, the center began offering electronic classes by early April for the following session.
The United Association (UA), the national organization to which Local 12 belongs, has been working with the “Blackboard” online learning system and was promoting remote learning well before the pandemic. Local 12’s training center team was able to refer to UA instructional videos about how to use the system and other resources.
After a crash course in remote teaching, the center’s instructors moved online. “They worked tirelessly transferring info and getting up to speed,” Carter says. The center got the remote hours approved as fulfilling apprenticeship requirements. Thanks to the staff’s hard work, Local 12’s apprentices were able to complete the academic year by the end of June, and the fifth-year apprentices were able to graduate on time in May.