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.

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.”

Matt Messinger Local 12 recruitment specialist

The job comes naturally to new Local 12 recruiter

“As soon as I joined Local 12, I knew it was the right move for me,” says Matt Massinger. In fact, he thought so highly of the union and all that it brought him, he quickly became an evangelist for Local 12, touting its benefits to non-union plumbers whenever he could. Without prompting, Messinger kept up his ad hoc outreach campaign, driven by a simple wish: “I just wanted more people to experience what I was experiencing.”

Since coming on board last November as Local 12’s recruitment specialist, he now gets to spread the word on a daily basis.

There was no grand plan to become a plumber, Messinger says. He played junior hockey, thinking that it might be a stepping-stone to college and tried a few semesters at Massasoit Community College. Deciding school wasn’t for him, Messinger’s grandfather, an electrician, sat him down and told him that if he was not going to go to college, he should consider becoming either an electrician or a plumber.

“I told him that I’d rather not get electrocuted,” Messinger recalls. “I think I’ll be a plumber.”

He began his career on the non-union side, logging nine years with open shops. While Messinger loved plumbing from the start, his non-union experience sharply contrasted with what he discovered after joining Local 12 in 2015. He ticks off the many ways that things improved for him after becoming a member, including better wages, vastly superior health care, a commitment to on-the-job safety, and a pension and other retirement benefits that take all of the worry out of being able to retire with comfort and dignity.

“Most non-union plumbers can’t say that they don’t worry about retirement,” Messinger says. “Many have to work well beyond retirement age. I don’t think I’d be too good swinging wrenches at 80.”

Messinger also points to the brother- and sisterhood aspect of the union, and says the great camaraderie he now enjoys just isn’t there on the non-union side.

After joining Local 12, Messinger went to work for GBCA contractor American Plumbing and Heating on the Vistaprint headquarters building in Waltham. He remained with American and mostly worked on projects in the Seaport including 101 Northern Ave., 399 Congress Street, and Amazon’s latest expansion at 1 Boston Wharf, the last job site he worked at before taking the recruitment position.

As an organizer, Messinger says he often shares his personal journey from non-union worker to union member. “I tell prospective members that I wouldn’t have half of what I have if it wasn’t for the local.” Having that kind of work history and perspective helped make Messinger a strong candidate for the recruitment job, according to Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager.

“I wanted somebody that non-union workers could relate to. They can see themselves in somebody like Matt and identify with him. He can speak with authority,” Fandel says.

Messigner works alongside Frank Amato, Local 12’s director of business development and recruitment. In addition to recruiting members, the two bring the local’s message to contractors in the hope of signing them on. Messinger says that he often has to dispel misconceptions about unions when he is in the field. But once he gets past the mistaken beliefs, Local 12 practically sells itself. The shops will be more successful, he tells them, and their employees will be happier, more productive, and more respectful of the business.

Saying that the recruitment position is a dream job, Messinger notes that new members will often come back to thank him for giving them the opportunity. “They’re always all smiles,” he says. “I see that, and I think this is the best job I could ask for.”

“My life changed entirely when I joined Local 12,” Messinger contends. “I wanted to pass it on. Now, it’s my job to do that.”

Local 12 Boston plumber with face mask during pandemic

Cautiously optimistic as industry copes with pandemic

When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Boston and other municipalities abruptly closed virtually all construction sites, along with a series of other preventative measures. Consequently, the unemployment rate for Local 12 members shot up to about 80%, and GBPCA contractors saw their revenues drop sharply.

As industry leaders gathered to discuss safety protocols in advance of restarting jobs in May, there was much angst about the impact on productivity and the general viability of projects. So, many months later, how are things going?

“I’m happy to report that we have over 95% employment among our members,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, adding that the rate is typical for this time of year. In other words, employment has more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” Fandel adds. “After the depths of the initial shutdown, I wouldn’t have thought we would be where we are now.”

Contractors are also indicating that nearly all jobs have resumed, and that the industry in general has rebounded well. That’s not to say, however, that everything is exactly normal. COVID 19 has fundamentally changed many things and continues to present challenges.

Weathering a difficult storm

When projects such as Boynton Yards in Somerville and 325 Main Street in Cambridge halted in March, GBPCA contractor J.C. Higgins reduced the field work force of its plumbing division by about 80%.

“Those of us in the office went to a four-day work week to help reduce payroll,” says John Shaughnessy, VP of the contractor’s plumbing division and a 36-year veteran at the company. Among other mitigation strategies, some employees took early retirement. Through it all, J.C. Higgins was able to retain 90% of its office staff. 

“We lost the opportunity to generate much revenue during the three-month shutdown of the first coronavirus wave,” Shaughnessy says. “We are tightening everything where we can. We have been able to weather the shutdowns, but it has not been easy.”

On the bright side, things have gone well since work resumed in May under “new normal” conditions. Company officials were trying to anticipate what might happen when practices such as social distancing and tool washing were introduced at construction sites. 

“Would it cost us 20% of a day’s productivity? More? We just didn’t know,” says Shaughnessy. As it turns out, J.C. Higgins has seen that the impact has not been as severe as anticipated. 

Local 12’s Fandel concurs. Workers quickly adopted safety precautions such as wearing facemasks and other PPE. And technology such as phone apps and QR codes were rapidly deployed to help streamline health screenings. “It’s become standardized,” Fandel says. “We incorporated new processes, made them part of our routine, and adapted.”

In-person instruction returns to training center

The pandemic has interrupted routines at Local 12’s training center. The school quickly pivoted to remote learning after it went into lockdown mode in the spring. Apprentices and instructors connected online via electronic classes. When the fall session began in the new academic year, however, the training center reopened, and the day school program reverted back to in-person classes, albeit with a number of adaptations.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the reduction of class sizes. To accommodate social distancing, most classes have about ten apprentices, or about one-third less students. Because the class sizes are smaller, the training center will be expanding its schedule and presenting more classes.

All work areas are regularly sanitized, and the classrooms themselves are disinfected daily. The center installed many hand sanitizer stations, increased the airflow of its HVAC system to improve ventilation, and closed its break room. Apprentices and instructors are required to wear masks at all times. If team projects require participants to be closer than six feet, they wear clear face shields in addition to masks.

The modifications are not insignificant, and the conditions are not ideal, according to Rick Carter, the training center’s director. For example, it can be difficult for instructors and students to understand each other when they talk with masks on. But he says that the overwhelming consensus is that in-person classes are considerably better than the alternative, adding that there is no substitute when you’re trying to teach somebody a trade.

“Most of our apprentices are visual, hands-on, tactile learners,” Carter notes. “You can’t do that virtually.”

To illustrate the point, he says that he presented the math for a project during a class, and one of the apprentices was having trouble understanding it conceptually. When they built the project together in the shop, however, it all came together. “She did a great job with it and immediately got it. We couldn’t have done that online,” Carter says.

Fandel says that he is hopeful that the center will be able to continue to offer in-person classes, but notes that much is dependent on conditions outside of the school’s control such as rising infection rates in the community.

With a wobbly general economy, the trustees that oversee the training center decided to reduce the size of the incoming class by about half to 30 apprentices. Should conditions warrant it, Fandel notes that the school could open its enrollment later.

Looking to the future

How might conditions evolve in the construction industry? In the near future, Shaughnessy and Fandel believe that the unprecedented boom times that have prevailed over the past few years will mostly continue. Not only have nearly all existing jobs resumed, but owners and developers of many major new projects that had been in the pipeline have indicated that they will be moving forward with their plans. These include the massive Suffolk Downs development and Mass General, which has a $1-billion, 1-million-square-foot expansion on tap.

Some sectors, however, are shaky. Shaughnessy says that the city’s previously red-hot condo market might be taking a bit of a hit in the near term, noting that a residential project in the Seaport switched to lab space (for which there is continued huge demand). And some spec jobs that developers were building without tenants in place have been put on hold. The dicey economy has dealt a blow to retail and restaurant projects as well.

But Fandel points to the many engines that undergird the Boston area’s resilient economy and support the construction industry, including its universities, hospitals, research and development, and biotech. “It’s a testament to the region,” he says.

Post-pandemic, Shaughnessy remains upbeat. “In a year or two, I expect that there will be many new projects that we will be bidding.” He adds that, in his opinion, office space will remain an important part of new construction. “Offices will not become obsolete,” Shaughnessy says. “I don’t think people will work from home forever. I believe we are very social and want to join together in workspaces.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, says that contractors are up to the task. “The pandemic has presented a new type of challenge. There is still so much uncertainty as to how everything will shake out, but our contractors will remain nimble and continue to evolve.”

Shaughnessy says that he’s “cautiously optimistic. J.C. Higgins and the industry will persevere.”

Jovai Taylor and Michael Alewxander Local 12 Boston apprentices

2020 will be memorable first year for apprentices

No matter what may be happening outside of the industry, it’s always momentous for apprentices when they join Local 12 and begin their training.

Members likely have vivid memories of their first year in the program as they began to learn the trade and started on their journey in a new career. But for the thirty first-year apprentices who came on board in 2020 amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, their experiences will be especially memorable. The Pipeline caught up with two of them to learn about their path to Local 12.

Michael Alexander

As a third-generation Local 12 member, you might think that it would have been Michael Alexander’s destiny to become a plumber and join the union. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While he always liked putting things together and making things work, Alexander chose to study engineering in college. But when he joined the Army National Guard three years ago as a helicopter mechanic, he found his calling working with his hands.

“It was then that I knew the desk thing wasn’t really going to be for me,” says Alexander, noting that he enjoyed being in the field repairing and replacing helicopter parts. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work in the trades.”

As to what trade, his family provided inspiration. Alexander’s grandfather, Ed Farrell, uncle, Brian Farrell, and cousin, Ryan Farrell, all joined Local 12 and pursued plumbing as a career. He sought the advice of his uncle, who helped convince him to follow the family tradition.

“Even though I had grown up hearing about the union, I didn’t know much about it,” Alexander says. “After my uncle told me about the high professional standards, the safety standards, the wages, the benefits, and more, I decided to apply.”

Alexander was accepted into the local in 2019, but duty called when the Army National Guard deployed him to the Middle East. Part of a heavy maintenance team, he serviced Blackhawk helicopters in his home base, Kuwait, as well as in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Over the course of Alexander’s deployment, which lasted through

January of this year, his team supported 33,000 hours of combat flight time. “I knew that I had Local 12 to go home to,” he says.

Upon his return, Alexander went to work for Glionna Plumbing and Heating where he has remained. Not long after he started, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Alexander notes that there have been no reported virus cases at any of the job sites on which he has been working. He credits Glionna, the general contractors, and the safety protocols adopted by the building trades for helping to keep him and his coworkers safe.

Many of Glionna’s projects are municipal buildings. Alexander, for example, has been working on new police headquarters in Belmont and Beverly. The crews are relatively small, which makes it easier to social distance. 

He cites another benefit of working for a smaller shop. “My uncle was a foreman and ran a lot of huge jobs. With Glionna, I get to do a lot more, because I wear many hats. I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience with a variety of things.”

Alexander says that his military experience and regard for the chain of command has served him well at job sites. “It makes it easier for me to learn. I have respect for the journeyman and foreman above me,” he notes. “You only have to tell me things once.”

He also notes parallels between the military and the union. “With Local 12, there’s strength in unity. We have each other’s backs. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

As for the benefits he is receiving, the 24-year-old says that he doesn’t know anybody else his age with a health care plan, an annuity, and a pension. “It’s pretty fantastic.”

Jovai Taylor

She always liked working with her hands, but Jovai Taylor ended up with jobs at auto dealerships and a car rental agency. Tired of sitting at a desk and seeking a change, she thought about the things she liked doing and remembered how much she enjoyed working alongside her father helping him with home 

repairs and improvements. It’s something Taylor carried with her throughout her life. She says that she always tries to figure out how to do things herself. She thought construction could be something to pursue.

“I wanted to get into the building trades for a long time,” Taylor says. “But I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Then a friend who is a pipefitter told her about Building Pathways. The Roxbury-based pre-apprenticeship program helps prepare people, especially women, people of color, and others in underserved communities, for careers in the building trades. Local 12 is one of the unions that works with and supports Building Pathways.

Taylor enrolled in the program in 2019 to begin her new career path. As part of the curriculum, participants are asked to identify two trades they would like to enter. She chose plumbing and pipefitting.

After graduating from Building Pathways, Taylor applied to some of the building trade unions. While she waited to hear from them, she took a job with a nonunion shop to get some experience.

Accepted by Local 12, the first-year apprentice says that up until recently, she didn’t know much about unions. “Now, there is a sense of security. I understand that Local 12 has my best interests at heart and is looking out for me,” Taylor says. “Unlike past jobs, it feels like a career for me now.”

Having briefly worked for a nonunion contractor, she says that there is a big difference on the union side. “The way I’m treated, the pay, the benefits–it’s all so much better.”

As a woman working in the trades, Taylor says her gender has been a non-issue. Everyone has been accepting her.

Since joining Local 12, Taylor has been working for GBPCA contractor TG Gallagher at 51 Sleeper Street in Boston’s Seaport District. The mixed-use building, which dates back to 1924, is being renovated and converted into new office and lab space.

While the class sizes are smaller than usual at Local 12’s training center, and everyone is wearing a mask along with other safety measures, Taylor says that as a first-year apprentice, she has nothing to compare it to. Her experiences in the classroom and the center’s shop have been great, she notes. Taylor is especially looking forward to learning more about welding and brazing.

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.

The benefits of being a Local 12 member during the pandemic

As the pandemic took hold, many people found themselves out of work and trying to adapt to unforeseen downtime. But Roger Gill, Local12’s Health and Welfare Fund administrator, and the staff he oversees in the organization’s benefits office were busier than ever.

That’s because the benefits that members receive–including health care–continue while they are unemployed.

When most major construction sites in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville were ordered closed in March, about 80% of Local 12’s members, through no fault of their own, were laid off. (Most have since returned to work as projects were allowed to resume.) Many of them used the opportunity to check in with the benefits office. Some had questions related to unemployment. Others updated info and resolved matters that they had been meaning to pursue.

The pandemic has created much uncertainty and stress for everyone. Many American workers who have been let go faced the double whammy of losing their job and scrambling to replace the healthcare benefits they suddenly lost. That wasn’t the case for Local 12 plumbers.

“Our medical insurance allows members to take that concern right off the table,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s a level of anxiety they did not have. It’s hard to overstate the benefit.”

Once they have been working in Local 12 for one year, members are eligible for 12 months of continued healthcare coverage should they become unemployed. Those who were laid off in March due to COVID-19, therefore, would be covered through the end of March 2021.

Compare that to plumbers working for open-shop companies (as well as a large swath of employees in other types of work). They typically lose their employer-provided benefits and have to apply for COBRA health insurance, which can be costly. That could add insult to injury at a time when laid-off employees are dealing with financial uncertainty.

The union has members’ backs

When people are out of work, they generally have to go it alone. From applying for unemployment, to seeking health care alternatives, to being subjected to potentially shady financial advisors, to seeking new employment and reestablishing themselves at a different company, it can be overwhelming. It’s different at Local 12.

“Members have advocates here that work on behalf of them,” Gill says. “They have resources and someone to go to throughout their careers.” For example, those members that were laid off were able to get help navigating the process to apply for unemployment benefits.

The health insurance benefits that Local 12 offers compares favorably to those available at open-shop companies. Non-union workers often have to navigate a variety of options, some of which might include high-deductibles and may not be available for families. Local 12, however, has one comprehensive plan that is extended to members’ families, includes medical, prescription, vision, and dental coverage, has generally lower co-pays and deductibles, and features more robust plan benefits, including a $50,000 life insurance policy for active members.

In addition to health insurance coverage provided through retirement and a Medicare supplement, members also have a local union-defined benefit pension plan, a national union-defined benefit plan, a defined contribution pension plan, and Social Security benefits that allow them to retire with security and dignity.

Another benefit that Local 12 provides is counseling services. With all of the anxiety and stress-related issues caused by the pandemic, members were able to receive counseling via online telehealth sessions. Because of the camaraderie that Local 12 engenders, members were also able to turn to one another. “Informally, we sometimes step into the role of counselor,” Fandel says, referring to the sympathetic ear he and the business agents offer to members.

Gill notes that he has been through downturns before, including the recession of the early 1990s, the 2002 tech bubble burst, and the 2008 real estate market and banking collapse. “Nobody can prepare for these,” he says. But, he notes with optimism, people in Local 12 weathered those storms and will weather the COVID-19 pandemic “thanks to generations of strong leadership and top-notch employers. We’ve been around for 130 years. We’re not going anywhere.”