Cambridge Crossing project rendering

Positive outlook as pandemic winds down

The pandemic has affected virtually everybody and everything–including the construction industry. About one year after the viral outbreak turned the world on its head, vaccination rates are rapidly rising, infection levels are decreasing, and the goal of herd immunity is looming in the not-so-distant future.

With the pandemic hopefully on its last legs, there has been much talk about the “new normal,” a concession that there will be lingering, perhaps permanent after-effects. So, what might the regional construction industry look like post-COVID?

Temperature checks, social distancing, and most of the other health and safety protocols that construction sites have adopted will go away. But, according to Local 12 Business Manager Tim Fandel, it’s likely that the sanitizing stations will remain long after the threat of the virus has passed.

Soon after the outbreak shuttered many building projects, Local 12 plumbers were among the first to return to install hand-washing sinks with hot water hookups. At some larger sites, they also installed temporary, functioning toilets to replace porta potties.

“They’re easy to install, it’s a simple change, and they improve health,” Fandel says about the sinks and toilets. “General contractors realize the value of having them, and workers really appreciate them.”

Fandel also believes that the nurses that have become embedded at larger construction sites may remain permanent fixtures. Fostered by the pandemic, they could be part of an overall greater commitment to safety and health. John Cannistraro, Jr., president of GBPCA contractor J.C. Cannistraro, agrees.

“Onsite safety has improved. It’s top of mind for everyone,” he says. 

Just as the pandemic has caused those in the construction industry to rethink health and safety measures, it has forced everyone, including owners, developers, general contractors, architects, and engineers, to step back, reevaluate everything they are doing, and perhaps consider different ways they might work together. Cannistraro thinks that people are now more open to new ideas.

“We’ve all experienced the horror of the pandemic,” he says. “Coming out of it, people are more willing to work as a team. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together.”

As an example, Cannistraro says that his company has been brought in during the pre-construction phase to help shape the architectural and structural design of a project. “It’s an opportunity to advance the industry by reemphasizing our professionalism and demonstrating that skilled labor has a role in reshaping the new economy,” he adds.

Owners and developers recalibrate

While those designing and building projects rethink how they will get the work done, the pandemic may have influenced what type of projects they will be constructing post-COVID. The demand for office buildings, for example, has cooled. With many office employees now working out of their homes, it’s likely that they will use a hybrid model and split their time between their home offices and their company offices when they do return to work.

The demand for luxury condos, another sector that has been fueling the red-hot construction market, has softened a bit as well. But many believe it may just be a momentary blip, as sales and interest have picked up recently. Regardless of the pandemic, the Boston area’s fundamentals remain sound. Higher education, healthcare, and research continue to drive the economy, and the housing supply is limited.

To that end, there is great demand for life science construction projects that is offsetting the reduced demand for new office buildings. And there is an insatiable demand for affordable housing. Fandel adds that bellwether projects in the pipeline, such as Cambridge Crossing, the tower at South Station, Suffolk Downs, and multiple projects in the Seaport, are moving forward and are indicative of the many opportunities that lie ahead. “I’m bullish on the industry and employment for our members,” he says.

Cannistraro is equally optimistic, noting that some of the recalibration in the types of projects getting greenlit may be due as much to the cyclical nature of the construction industry as to COVID. “We are busier than we’ve ever been as far as potential opportunities in a lot of different sectors.”

Brian Doherty Construction Stops COVID program

Industry takes proactive steps to stop COVID

The building trades in the region responded quickly and with serious purpose when the pandemic began to emerge in early 2020.

By mid-March of last year, nearly all construction sites shut down. Before the sites reopened in May, unions representing the trades and affiliated contractors, including Local 12 and the GBPCA, convened to hammer out a comprehensive safety and virus prevention plan. Safeguards they developed and implemented include screening procedures, staggered starts, personal protective equipment requirements, social distancing guidelines, and hand washing stations (which were installed by Local 12 plumbers).

In late December, with the pandemic still raging, the labor unions and their partner contractors took an aggressive step to further protect workers by rolling out Construction Stops COVID. In collaboration with Partners In Health and Harbor Health Services, as well as the cities of Boston and Cambridge, the initiative makes testing, tracing, and treatment available to union construction workers. It is also hoping to offer vaccine distribution. The innovative, proactive program sends a powerful message and demonstrates an abiding commitment to safety and prevention.

“We’re kicking off what we believe will be a national model within our industry and beyond,” said Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions. He made the remarks at an online event to launch Construction Stops COVID that included representatives of participating organizations. The goal of the program, according to Doherty, is “to keep workers and their families safe both on the job and at home.”

“This is an historic initiative and the first of its kind in the nation,” said Mayor Martin Walsh during a presentation at the kickoff event. The mayor took early, decisive action in March 2020 by closing down all construction sites in Boston. A strong advocate for Construction Stops COVID, he noted that it would play an important role in helping the city weather the pandemic and return on the path to normalcy. “We’re setting the highest safety standards in the nation,” Walsh said, adding that efforts such as this have helped Boston rank number one among U.S. cities to recover from the recession caused by the outbreak.

Doherty says that the mayor helped plant the seed for Construction Stops COVID by connecting the building trades with the global public health organization, Partners In Health. “We jumped at the chance. It’s been a great collaboration from the start.” PIH brings health care to the world’s most vulnerable communities, including Rwanda, Liberia, and Haiti. The initiative with the building trades represents the organization’s pilot program to help battle COVID-19 in the U.S.

One of the key ways Construction Stops COVID is helping workers stay healthy and safe is through a network of new, local mini-clinics its partners have strategically established near construction site hubs. The idea is to remove nearly all of the hassle and make it as easy as possible for workers to get testing, participate in tracing efforts, and access other resources. The clinics are located at Bunker Hill Community College, near the Black Falcon Terminal in the Seaport, and in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

“Through this collaboration, we can deliver services at the point of need,” explained Claire Pierre, MD, chief medical officer for Harbor Health Services. The non-profit, public health agency is operating the clinical hubs. “We can remove the barriers of access, transportation, coordination, and everything else,” Pierre added.

Even as vaccination efforts ramp up, COVID testing will remain an important component in controlling and combating the virus. Until herd immunity is attained, it’s still possible for people to become infected, especially essential workers such as those in the construction trades.

“Testing is critical,” asserted Margaret Bordeaux, MD, MPH, research director at the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “We need to have easy, convenient workplace testing.” Bordeaux and her colleagues at the Harvard project were instrumental in recruiting the Construction Stops COVID partners.

“It’s a great idea,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, about Construction Stops COVID. He says that he visited one of the clinics and got a test. “The whole process took five minutes. It couldn’t have been any more efficient and convenient. The great thing is that it is specifically set up for our members and their families.”

PIH is coordinating the public health awareness component of the initiative. It is helping to get the word out about the ways that Local 12 members and others in the building trades can remain vigilant, adopt safe practices, and keep themselves, their families, and their communities healthy. General contractors John Moriarty & Associates, Suffolk, and Turner Construction are also part of the coalition that is supporting Construction Stops COVID.

Maintaining health and safety during a pandemic are important goals in and of themselves. But keeping the construction trades safe and on the job are important to the health of the region’s economy as well.

“We can show the rest of the world how not to just reopen the economy, but to put in the proper controls to give people comfort and safety for themselves and their loved ones,” said Joia Mukherjee, MD, PIH’s chief medical officer.

Construction Stops COVID also reinforces the point that we all have a shared responsibility, and that we all need to play a role in combating COVID.

“We really have to think very differently about what our health means to other people,” said Pierre.

Mayor Walsh joins Biden Cabinet

“It’s a little bittersweet,” says Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions, referring to the appointment of former Mayor Martin J. Walsh as labor secretary. “He’ll be great for the country, but he’s going to leave awfully big shoes to fill here in Boston.”

When Walsh was first elected mayor in 2013, Doherty succeeded him at the helm of the Building Trades Unions organization. Walsh was a state representative for 16 years as well. His legislative experience along with his role as chief executive of a major city will serve him well in his new Cabinet position. But Walsh’s bona fides as a union worker and leader make him uniquely qualified to be secretary of labor. He is the first union member in nearly 50 years to hold the position.

At age 21, Walsh followed in his father’s footsteps and became a member of Laborers Local Union 223 in Boston. He later served as president of the construction union, a position his uncle had previously held. Organized labor has been a constant throughout Walsh’s life and its cause has remained near and dear to his heart. As mayor, he demonstrated that he is a champion for working men and women. He remains committed to continuing the fight as secretary of labor.

“Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country,” Walsh said on Twitter following the announcement of his nomination. “As secretary of labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.”

In his post, Walsh will oversee federal labor laws that cover issues such as workers compensation, overtime, and workplace health and safety. For its announcement of Walsh’s nomination, the Biden administration stated that he “has the necessary experience, relationships, and the trust of the president to help workers recover from this historic economic downturn and usher in a new era of worker power.”

Among his accomplishments heading the city, Walsh obtained a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and secured an additional $15 million in funding to establish the Greater Boston Apprenticeship Initiative. That led to Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program that helps women, people of color, and other under-served communities pursue careers in the construction trades. Local 12 participates in the program and has welcomed members who have graduated from it.

Walsh was also instrumental in the push to increase the minimum wage to $15 in Massachusetts. And the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment, which was established under his watch, provides financial coaching for Boston’s low-wage workers and helps them improve their credit. Walsh’s “Imagine Boston 2030” creates a roadmap to provide new opportunities for working-class people in the city as well as the development of more affordable housing for its residents.

Affordable housing is part of Walsh’s larger plan to build 69,000 housing units by 2030. During his tenure, he also oversaw a tremendous wave of commercial construction in the Seaport, downtown, the Fenway area, and other parts of the city. The activity is transforming Boston and positioning it well for the future. It is also fueling one of the largest building booms the city has ever seen and has kept GBPCA contractors, Local 12 members, and the all of the trades exceptionally busy.

“Marty has long been a champion of the working class,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. But in his role heading the Building Trades Unions, Fandel says that Walsh gained a lot of insight about how good development can help labor. “As mayor, he’s been pro-development, but not at the expense of the worker. He’s been pro-worker, but not at the expense of development. Marty understands that balancing act.”

“He’s a consensus builder,” adds Doherty, who has worked with Walsh on many labor issues. “One of his greatest strengths is his ability to bring everybody to the table, make sure their voices are heard, and to help figure out how to develop solutions.”

As an example, Doherty points to the leadership Walsh has exhibited as the pandemic took hold in the city. He says the mayor gathered representatives from labor, universities, hospitals, community advocates, and others to hammer out ways to address the crisis. It was Walsh, Doherty says, who reached out to the public health organization, Partners In Health, and the Building Trades Unions and suggested that they work with one another to help reinforce health and safety measures for the construction industry. As a result, they developed the initiative, Construction Stops COVID. (See article elsewhere in this issue.)

Doherty is confident that Walsh will bring the same kind of forward thinking and can-do spirit to the Department of Labor. “He’s the perfect person for the job. He will make difficult, courageous decisions. Throughout his entire career, Marty Walsh has been guided by a profound commitment to pursuing policies, reform, and progress that help to advance the public good and the needs of working people.”

PCA makes additional donations to area charities

The pandemic has disrupted many things, including the Greater Boston PCA’s holiday party. Breaking a longstanding tradition, the organization was unable to present its annual gathering this past December. Instead, the PCA honored the spirit of the season by redirecting the funds it would have spent on the party and donating $25,000 to charity. Combined with gifts made earlier in the year by both the PCA and Local 12, the two organizations donated a total of $105,000 to worthy causes in 2020.

The PCA’s president, Joe Valante, says he got the idea to make the donations after seeing people lining up at food banks and realizing the tremendous need in the community. The pandemic that forced the organization to cancel its holiday party has also caused a lot of unemployment and made life difficult for many Boston-area families. 

“It struck a chord in my heart,” Valante says. “If we couldn’t get together and celebrate, I thought it would make sense for us to help people who are less fortunate.” 

Among the five charities chosen by the PCA for its holiday season donations was Community Servings. The Jamaica Plain-based organization provides meals to chronically and critically ill individuals and their families. It also provides food service job training for people who face barriers to full-time employment. Father Bill’s & MainSpring, another beneficiary, provides emergency and permanent housing to people in Southern Massachusetts who are struggling with homelessness. It also helps individuals and families in emergency housing with food and nutrition, job training, and other basic needs.

Since 1989, Boston’s Christmas in the City has been presenting non-denominational holiday events for children and families experiencing homelessness and poverty. Located in Roxbury, Rosie’s Place was founded in 1974 as the first women’s shelter in the U.S.

The final holiday donation recipient was The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Roxbury. Its programs include an aquatic facility, culinary training, sports and recreation, creative arts, and social services. Opened in 2011, the center was one of the few major construction projects for union contractors during the recession following the 2008 crash. Its gesture of providing employment for working men and women during that difficult time will not soon be forgotten.

Last spring, the PCA, in conjunction with Local 12, made sizeable contributions to the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Boston Resiliency Fund. Established by Mayor Martin Walsh as the pandemic began exacting a toll on the city, the Resiliency Fund provides food for children and seniors, technology for students engaged in remote learning, and support to first responders and healthcare workers in the city.

Valante says that going forward, he hopes the PCA will continue to make donations to charitable organizations. “When we can, we should give back to the community that has been so good to us–especially when there is such great need,” he adds.

Natural gas ban rejected

In response to a bylaw passed by the town of Brookline seeking to ban the installation of gas and oil pipes in new and renovated buildings, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproved it because it is inconsistent with state law.

Her office said that the bylaw would undermine the state’s building and gas codes along with the authority of the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters. Essentially, the codes are standard across the state and don’t allow for the kind of exception that Brookline was seeking. Further, the bylaw would violate a law that gives the public uniform access to utility services.

The issue is of importance to the GBPCA and Local 12. “It’s in our name,” says Tim Fandel, the union’s business manager. “We are Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12. It’s no small part of what we do.” Gasfitting provides a lot of work for the union’s members and its affiliated GBPCA contractors.

That doesn’t mean the organizations are opposed to combating climate change—quite the opposite. In fact, they believe that gas provides a cleaner, more realistic, and more affordable pathway to renewable energy than imposing an outright ban of it.

The Brookline bylaw would have required developers and homeowners to install heating and hot water systems as well as appliances that exclusively use electricity. Other communities, including Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, and Somerville have considered similar measures.

“While it’s well-intentioned, trying to implement a fossil fuel ban in 2020 without an existing renewable energy infrastructure is misguided,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of public affairs for the GBPCA.

He explains that by putting more of a burden on the electrical grid now, utilities would need to burn more fossil fuels thereby releasing more carbon emissions and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When demand spikes during the winter, Massachusetts relies on oil- and coal-fired facilities for up to 40% of its electricity. Ironically therefore, should a community ban gas pipes, heat that could have been supplied by cleaner, gas-fired heating systems in homes and businesses would instead be generated by burning coal and oil. “If cities and towns attack this with a broad blade, there would be unintended consequences,” DeAngelo says.

“It’s impractical, and in some ways, irresponsible, to abruptly ban gas now,” Fandel adds. “It doesn’t make sense.”

It also would place an undue financial burden on homeowners, businesses, and organizations. The cost to heat using electricity compared to gas is more—in most cases, considerably more. In fact, Massachusetts has the highest electricity rates in the lower 48 states.

According to the commercial real estate development association, NAIOP Massachusetts, it is more cost-effective to build projects using gas systems. The proposed Brookline bylaw and similar measures would therefore hike the construction costs of new buildings. “At this stage of technology, natural gas bans would block important affordable housing and economic development projects from advancing and would be extremely detrimental to the commonwealth’s economy,” the NAIOP says.

Banning gas and requiring electric appliances and heating systems would also reduce consumer choice. Many homeowners as well as restaurants prefer gas ranges, stoves, and grills to prepare food.

Along with chambers of commerce and other organizations, the GBPCA and Local 12 are members of the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy []. The group supports a responsible transition to a renewable energy future that ensures reliability and affordability, strengthens the state’s economy, and enhances Massachusetts’ position as a leader on climate change. It advocates for expanding our access to natural gas.

“We all share the same goal of having cleaner energy sources like wind and solar in the long term,” Fandel says. “I think natural gas acts as a bridge to get us there eventually.”

Rita Gill-McCarthy Local 12 Boston

Gill-McCarthy is new LMCT administrator

The Labor-Management Cooperative Trust (LMCT) serves as a bridge between Local 12 and the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA). It works to advance both organizations’ shared objectives and promote as well as maintain a vigilant eye on the plumbing industry. In April, the LMCT welcomed Rita Gill-McCarthy as its new administrator.

Gill-McCarthy brings 20 years of experience working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Apprentice Standards. A part of the Department of Labor, the division registers all of the state’s apprentices along with handling other apprentice-related duties. Among her responsibilities, Gill-McCarthy issued ID cards to apprentices seeking work on prevailing wage jobs. She also examined certified payrolls to make sure that apprentices were being correctly compensated.

The work prepared Gill-McCarthy well for her LMCT position. Part of her role includes analyzing construction project data to bring questionable business practices, including failures to adhere to prevailing wage laws, to light. She also ensures that bids are handled properly and that they are administered correctly and legally once they are awarded. The efforts help Local 12 members and signatory GBPCA contractors compete on a more level playing field.

“There can be some unscrupulous players–‘bad actors,’ if you will–in the industry,” Gill-McCarthy says. By exposing them and making sure everyone plays by the rules, the LMCT “can even help nonunion shops and workers in a roundabout way,” she adds.

The work often puts Gill-McCarthy in touch with the Fair Labor Division of the state’s Attorney General’s office. It also puts her in touch with GBPCA contractors and Local 12 officials, many of whom she had worked with while at the Division of Apprentice Standards. The relationships that she developed are serving her well at the LMCT. 

“I’m one of Rita’s biggest fans,” says Rick Carter, the director of Local 12’s training center, who often interacted with Gill-McCarthy when she was at the state agency. “She was always very helpful to our apprentices and the training center. She was very detail oriented. I can’t say enough good about her.”

With a father, two cousins, and an uncle all working as carpenters, along with another cousin who was a roofer, Gill-McCarthy was quite familiar with the construction trades growing up. She was also familiar with organized labor.

“My father was in the union and was very pro-union,” says Gill-McCarthy. “He always told me I should be a carpenter. I didn’t listen to him.”

But the labor message did resonate as she pursued a degree in labor studies from UMass Boston and went to work for the Department of Labor after graduating college. 

Gill-McCarthy’s husband is a teamster. They have a ten-year-old daughter. She says that her family enjoys taking bike rides and traveling. (Remember traveling?)

As LMCT administrator, Gill-McCarthy notes that her multi-faceted work keeps her on her toes. “Every day is something new,” she says. “I love the challenge.”