By Laurinda Joenks | April 13, 2020 | Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The pop of nail guns. The buzz of saws. The rumble of trucks. The sounds of construction continue to fill the air of Northwest Arkansas.

Thousands of people remain on job sites as local contractors continue their projects despite the risk of infection from the coronavirus.

Federal and state officials have asked members of the public to isolate themselves at home to stop the spread of the fast-moving virus. Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month asked that all people who could work from home do so. And last week, he stopped in-person teaching in the state’s schools for the rest of the school year.

But staying home isn’t possible for construction workers, said Brian Turmail, a vice president of the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry leaders noted that each person has a specific job on a construction site, whether it is painting, laying tile or sodding the lawn. That allows for the “social distancing” recommended by officials.

And working outside lessens the risk of employees sharing the virus, contractors said.

“Working outside is thought to pose less risk for transmission of the virus than indoors,” according to Danyelle McNeill, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Health Department. “But, that does not mean outdoor workers can’t transmit it to each other, so they need to take proper precautions as well.”

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Northwest Arkansas contractors said they have added extra safety measures for workers, such as washing stations, bottles of hand sanitizer in every vehicle and limits on the number of people on elevators.

Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, said he hears a different story.

“I’ve been taking calls all day from people saying their employers are not enforcing any kind of distancing or other safeguards,” Hughes said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “That’s construction workers and every other kind.

“They can’t refuse to go and then collect unemployment because, if they do, the state will call their employer who will say, ‘Yeah, there is work available,’ making the benefits unavailable,” he said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was underfunded and undermanned before the pandemic, Hughes said. He advised workers who believe their work sites are high-risk “to do the only thing they can do: Call their lawmakers and tell them what’s going on.”

Hutchinson issued an order directing construction companies to take specific safety measures to protect employees, noted Chelsea O’Kelly, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office. If employees feel threatened with the virus because of inadequate safety precautions, they should contact the state Health Department, she said in a statement Thursday.

“If adequate safety measures are intentionally being ignored by employers, there are consequences under Arkansas law,” she wrote.

The builders said the jobs they support are “essential.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security agrees. An advisory list of essential jobs released March 28 included construction workers as vital to ensure the “viability of critical infrastructure in their communities.”

“As long as they’re working, they’re excited and happy to work and are willing to risk exposure,” said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

The Skyline report, in considering Northwest Arkansas’ economic situation for the second half of 2019, noted that home sales were at a record high and vacancies were few in multifamily complexes. The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville presents the Skyline report twice a year.

“Taking construction off line would be a big gut punch,” Harvey said.

Harvey noted that the construction industry is the eighth-largest in Northwest Arkansas, employing about 20,000 people in the last half of 2019.

SUPPLIES, DEMAND

“It’s business as usual,” reported Shana Kasparek, executive officer of the Northwest Arkansas Home Builders Association. She said many people are taking advantage of low interest rates to build homes.

David Stitt of the Stitt Group said projects far enough along in design and with financing secured will finish.

Other reports are mixed.

The construction of a home on Beaver Lake has been postponed, said Steve Abshier of Abshier Construction in Rogers. The Colorado Springs, Colo., customer can’t fly to Northwest Arkansas without facing a two-week quarantine when he returns to his home state.

“And when people are in self-quarantine, they don’t want us around tearing up their house,” Abshier said. Much of his business involves the remodeling of homes, he said.

A March 23 survey of members by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 39% of about 1,500 contractors across the nation “have halted or canceled current construction projects amid deteriorating economic conditions.”

Only 18% of those have been shut down by their local governments, the report said.

Construction pumps about $880 million a year into the local economy just in terms of wages, Harvey said.

Nationally, construction wages and salaries contributed $468 billion to the economy in 2018 and $2.5 billion in Arkansas, according to information provided by Ken Simonson, the chief economist for the contractors association.

Ben Booth, president of the Northwest Arkansas Home Builders Association, foresees possible unemployment for workers and bankruptcies for contractors.

“Another bump in the road for the long term if the spread of the virus is not contained in the short term,” he said. Booth owns Booth Building in Fayetteville.

He also worries about the current shortage of skilled laborers — carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers, painters and landscapers. Many of the laborers did not return to the area’s construction industry after the 2007-09 recession, and Booth is afraid that will happen again.

“They went to a different career or moved to a different part of the country,” he said.

Raymond Burns, president of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, said the construction industry won’t see many effects if the virus shutdown is short.

“As long as we’ve got concrete, it’s going to continue to pour,” he said.

But that’s yet another concern.

Building supplies still are arriving at Lindsey Construction sites, said Kevin Rogerson, an evaluator for the company. “But I don’t know if down the road we’ll get products, if they will be manufacturing them.”

The national contractors association survey found 35% of contractors and subcontractors had been notified that some deliveries would be delayed or canceled. A survey the week before, on March 17-19, found that only 22% had received such messages.

Dana Melton said she hopes for a total shutdown of the community — including construction. She is the co-owner of A&C Services, an air-conditioning and heating company in Springdale.

“I think it would be fantastic if everybody would just go home, stay in their houses and just get groceries. Nobody would pay bills, then we’d all be in the same boat,” she said.

“In a few weeks, we would pick up our tools and go back to work. We’d be a month behind, but we’d catch up,” she said. “We might have to work twice as hard for a while.”

ESSENTIAL WORK

“The government has said we’re essential to keep the nation working to make America a better place,” said Doug Westervelt, safety director for Crossland Construction in Wichita, Kan.

The company has crews in Northwest Arkansas building several projects, including a multifamily housing complex in the Pinnacle area in Rogers.

Booth, the homebuilders association president, said “essential” does not mean the product or the customer.

Rather, he said, the wages of the construction and trade workers at the sites are essential to the economy.

“There are so many things that we do that affect everyone,” Westervelt said. “Roads, hospitals, housing. Most people don’t realize how big we are.”

Hutchinson has received some pressure to issue a stay-at-home order for the entire state.

“If they shut down, it’s going to be tough on employees,” said Fadil Bayyari of Bayyari Construction in Fayetteville. “They are self-employed, and they work hard to make enough money. They’re going to be hurting.”

“So many people depend on construction to keep their families fed,” said Sam Hollis of Milestone Construction in Springdale. Milestone crews have stayed on the job at the Springdale criminal justice center and elsewhere.

Most front-line workers in the construction industry don’t receive paid sick leave as a condition of employment. And they don’t get paid if they’re not working, Booth said.

SAFETY MEASURES

Northwest Arkansas contractors said they are following guidelines offered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for controlling the spread of the coronavirus: encouraging hand-washing, putting up signs as reminders and telling employees who are not feeling well to stay home.

Crossland has added washing stations at its larger sites and body temperature checks at the gates. Milestone also added washing stations and would check temperatures, too, if it could find thermometers, Hollis said.

Turmail, of the contractors association, also recommended staggered breaks and lunch times, prohibiting food trucks at work sites, not sharing tools and opening windows if workers are riding in the same truck, among other things.

Westervelt said employees must take personal tools, such as hammers, to the sites. When employees operate bigger equipment owned by the company, such as saws, the workers use gloves.

Bayyari said he insists that his workers comply with the rules.

“We even ask for 10 feet minimum between them,” he said. “Not 6 feet, but 10 feet.”

The nature of the business allows workers to stay on the job, Bayyari said.

“We do dirt work, and iron and steel erection, so our guys are outside all the time. And only one man at a time can ride a tractor,” he said.

Airflow is better outside, so any respiratory droplets carrying the virus will likely be swept away and land in a harmless spot rather than to be sucked in by someone else, according to the Health Department.

Also, the sun’s ultraviolet light helps deactivate or kill most viruses, including covid-19, the Health Department’s McNeill said. That will help kill virus particles that land on other objects more quickly, before someone else can contaminate themselves.

“But this process is not immediate; therefore, not foolproof,” she said.

Booth said he has heard only a few concerns about the virus among the workers.

“They do work outside, but they also have wives and kids at home they don’t want to infect,” Booth said.

Stitt said suppliers are delivering straight to job sites, rather than construction crews picking up the building materials at warehouses. And the delivery crews unload the items.

Meetings with contractors, customers, designers and others now take place electronically, rather than at the work sites.

“I’m doing FaceTime walk-throughs,” Booth said. “I have one customer who can’t travel until June. This is the first time I’ve built a house over FaceTime.”

Metro on 04/13/2020

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