Local 12 Boston Plumbers member with mask

Industry adapts to the new normal

“This is a unique and challenging time,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), referring to the conditions that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on the construction industry. “Our contractors have had to put on new hats. Now they are not just construction and business experts, but also contagious disease and medical health specialists.”

Welcome to the new normal. Once GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers processed and dealt with the initial shutdown of most projects on which they had been working and other immediate effects of the pandemic in mid-March, they then had to figure out how to cope with the longer-term fallout. Like everybody else, they are anxious for a vaccine or treatment to emerge so the virus is no longer a threat. Until then, it’s not exactly business as usual.

A building trades group convened to help prepare for the reopening of construction sites that had been closed in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville (where the bulk of the region’s major projects are based). Among the participants were general contractors, plumbing and other subcontractor reps, and business agents. They met via conference calls, videoconferencing, and other remote means to talk about issues such as safety and hygiene protocols. Discussions centered on CDC and OSHA guidelines and recommendations.

Taking temperatures, staggering starts, and other modifications

Sites began reopening in May, and most have since resumed. So what do they look like? The details vary slightly from project to project, but they typically include a core group of updates and changes. Most of them mirror the kinds of safeguards that can be found at many places where people now gather. These include:

  • Screening procedure – People admitted onto construction sites have to confirm that they do not have a fever by having their temperatures taken. They also have to answer a series of self-identifying questions indicating that they are symptom-free and have not been exposed to anyone with the virus.
  • Staggered starts – Workers from different trades arrive at job sites at different assigned times in the morning so as not to overwhelm the screening process and to prevent large groups from having to congregate in one place.
  • Personal protective equipment – Everyone has to wear a facemask, which sometimes has to be an N95 mask, as well as work gloves. In some cases, face shields are also specified.
  • Social distancing – Where possible, workers are required to remain six feet apart from others. For high-rise jobs, only five people are allowed in service elevators, including the operators, and they are asked to face away from one another.

It may sound like a lot, but those on the ground say that workers at job sites have gotten into a routine and have been able to carry on with their work without too much interruption.

“It’s different, no doubt, but we can adapt,” Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent, says. He notes that when he started, workers at construction sites didn’t always wear hardhats or safety glasses. With regulations and guidelines now universal, nobody gives donning items like that a second thought. “The masks we have to wear are just another piece of PPE,” adds Keady. “It’s a matter of safety. With COVID-19, we have to be aware of the conditions and deal with them to the best of our training.”

One thing that is different is the size of crews. To accommodate social distancing, there are often limits on the number of workers that can be together on a floor or in a space at any one time. According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, project timelines are longer because there are less people doing the work. While almost 100% of the jobs that the contractor had been working on have resumed, Dionne says he has less people in the field.

There is also the extra cost of conducting business. Contractors say that they often have to pay a premium for items such as N95 masks and disinfectant wipes that are in high demand and short supply. There is also the time and energy they have to spend sourcing the items.

There is a new normal at Local 12’s training center as well. With physical classes cancelled, the instructors have shifted to remote learning. The apprentices and teachers have adapted, but the situation is not ideal, says Rick Carter, the center’s director.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s unconventional for us,” Carter says. Much of the curriculum is developed around practical, hands-on instruction presented in a shop setting. Lessons like that do not translate well when presented online.

With the fall session slated to resume in September, Carter is hopeful that at least some of the classes can be held in person. “We don’t want to do remote unless it’s absolutely necessary,” the director says. The training center will keep an eye on how state guidelines progress for getting back in the classroom. It is possible that the session may be a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.

What might the future hold?

The pandemic has not only presented immediate health and safety concerns. It has also wreaked havoc with the economy and may lead to lasting changes that could have an impact on the region’s construction industry. After many years of unprecedented growth and expansion, there could be a pullback on new projects–or not.

“Medium-term, I don’t expect much to change,” says Ed Strickland, president of William M. Collins Company. “All of our contractors have a pretty good backlog of work. Longer-term, the impact remains to be seen.”

Dionne is bullish on the future. “I’m an optimist. I see things bouncing back,” he says. There has been speculation that with so many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, the practice may become more ingrained and the demand for office space may decrease. Dionne isn’t so sure. “I think people want to be in social environments. Yes, people can work from home. But I don’t think we’re wired to work there for the rest of our careers.” Office towers and mixed-use projects that include office space have been driving much of the construction boom in the Boston area.

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, is optimistic as well. “On the residential side, we see a significant lineup of projects and every indication that there will be more to come,” he says. “Talking with our contractors, they are bidding on plenty of new projects.”

Pandemic throws a wrench into building trades

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.

GBPCA and Local 12 step up to help the community

– Organizations donate $80,000 during pandemic

As the COVID-19 outbreak began causing havoc and disrupting the economy, Joe Valante, president of Valante Mechanical, was struck by the suffering it was causing. When he learned that many people suddenly didn’t have the money to buy groceries and saw that food banks were having great difficulty keeping up with demand, he thought that the plumbing industry should try and help out. As president of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), he sounded the call to his colleagues in the contractors’ organization as well as to their partners at Local 12.

They came through. Big time. Together, the two groups donated a total of $80,000 with half supporting the Greater Boston Food Bank and half going to the Boston Resiliency Fund.

“We owe our livelihood to Boston and the surrounding cities and towns,” Valante explains. “I think it’s only right to help the communities at a great time of need.” His plea resonated with his fellow contractors as the GBPCA’s board decided to double the contributions that were originally proposed.
The organization was able to provide the needed support “thanks to many years of responsible, conservative spending and forward thinking,” added Jeremy Ryan, GBPCA’s executive director.

Likewise, Local 12 officials responded to the call with equal enthusiasm by matching the donations. “We may not realize how challenging it can be for people to get necessities like food during difficult times,” says Tim Fandel, the local’s business manager. In addition to the making the monetary contributions, the union helped in other ways. For example, a group of Local 12 members distributed groceries at a food bank set up at the Boston Housing Authority. “We have a long history of supporting the community,” notes Fandel.

“We are very grateful for the incredible generosity of the Greater Boston PCA and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local Union 12,” says Alisha Collins, the Greater Boston Food Bank’s director of corporate and community engagement.
The organization helps address food insecurity in the region, which has been compounded by the pandemic’s effect on the economy. Since March, the food bank has experienced the three largest distribution months in its 40-year history. “This donation will translate into 120,000 meals going to those who need it most and help to ensure that our operations can continue uninterrupted as we respond to historic levels of demand in our community,” Collins adds.

The Boston Resiliency Fund was established by Mayor Martin Walsh to provide food for children and seniors, technology for students engaged in remote learning, and support to first responders and healthcare workers in the city.

“The outpouring of support and generosity that we’ve seen from our partner organizations has been tremendous,” says Walsh. “I want to thank the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local Union 12 for their generous contribution, which will go a long way during this difficult time.”

In March, when there was a dire need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among frontline health care workers, the Boston area’s Building and Construction Trades Council organized a drive to collect respirators and other material. It encouraged industry workers and contractors to donate surplus equipment, including N95 masks, which is used at construction sites.

Spearheaded by Jim Vaughan, Local 12 business agent, the union donated boxes of N95 masks. Along with donations from other trades, the Boston Public Health Commission distributed the PPE to first responders and health care providers.

GBPCA offers free math prep classes

Part of the application process for Local 12’s apprenticeship program includes a mechanical aptitude test. To help candidates get ready for the exam, the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) is offering math prep classes at no cost to participants. The first four-week course, which was held at the Building Pathways Boston office in Roxbury, wrapped in February.

The experienced instructors that teach the classes are affiliated with the Latimer Institute, which has offered similar courses for IBEW Local 103 apprentice applicants for the past 15 years. The first course for Local 12 applicants was wildly popular, so the GBPCA made the limited number of slots available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

A second set of math prep classes will be held later in the spring. Info will be available at the greaterbostonpca.com Web site.

Governor Baker at Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association event

Governor Joins PCA at New Office Open House

The Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association hosted an open house in honor of its new office located in Braintree. Governor Charlie Baker was the guest of honor for the event.

The Governor expressed his support for the work that has been and continues to be done by Plumbers Union Local 12 and the plumbing contractors to keep the Commonwealth safe and clean. Baker spoke with admiration regarding the tireless work of plumbers following the aftermath of the Merrimack Valley gas disaster and the ongoing work being done to ensure that Massachusetts continues to uphold the highest standards in the industry.

The evening was a chance for experts across the plumbing industry to meet and engage in productive dialogue with the top executive in the state. Among the important issues addressed during the evening were the Paid Family Medical Leave Act. The PCA also used the occasion to share info about the state’s plumbing code with the Governor.

Plumbing on the 12s GBPCA podcast

GBPCA produces a podcast for the plumbing industry

There is one thing that everyone has while sitting in traffic: time, and a lot of it. As plumbing professionals endure more and more traffic, the GBPCA recognized an opportunity to fill the void with something productive. Since podcasts have become an increasingly popular form of media, especially for drivers stuck behind the wheel, the organization decided to produce its own show.

“We think it’s a great way to reach those who would be interested in filling their commute time with insightful business studies, engaging interviews, and news from around the industry,” says Jeremy Ryan, GBPCA’s executive director.

Called “Plumbing on the 12’s,” the podcast puts a fresh spin on the daily traffic report. Ryan co-hosts the show with the organization’s director of public affairs, Andrew DeAngelo. It covers topics such as business studies, substance abuse recovery and wellness, and new technologies. Ryan says that he will be inviting prominent figures in the plumbing and building trades industry to stop by as guests and give their perspectives on a variety of topics. The podcast’s first episode covers cost transparency and its potential use to drive business.

Information about the podcast, including direct links to the episodes, is available on the organization’s GreaterBostonPCA.com Web site. You could also subscribe by searching on iTunes for “Plumbing on the 12s.”