Construction workers look to looming coronavirus shutdown and see a ‘sinking boat’

Listen 1:30
Javier Garcia Hernandez, a project manager with the Philadelphia construction cooperative MexCon, inspects a job site on Jan. 10, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski / For WHYY)

Javier Garcia Hernandez, a project manager with the Philadelphia construction cooperative MexCon, inspects a job site on Jan. 10, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski / For WHYY)

This Friday, construction across Philadelphia will grind to a halt. Across the industry, the looming deadline conjures a sense of dread.

For Javier Garcia Hernandez, who works on small residential construction projects with other immigrant workers, it is second only to doomsday.

“We live paycheck to paycheck so if we don’t work, we’re kind of screwed,” said Hernandez, a project manager for MexCon, a cooperatively owned construction company staffed by immigrants. “It hasn’t really hit home yet, but I’m starting to worry. A lot.”

Hernandez said his crew was approached by an inspector from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections on Wednesday and told they needed to wrap up their project by Friday.

“We’re like a sinking boat all the time, trying to figure out how we collect money to pay the guys and pay the insurance, pay all these bills,” Hernandez said. “On any given day, whether we have a virus or no virus, we are a sinking boat. We have to figure out a way, hopefully, we can do some work.”

No corner of the construction industry is as vulnerable as workers like Hernandez. Although he is an American citizen, many others employed in smaller residential projects are undocumented. Almost none of them have union representation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor counts some 12,000 construction industry workers in Philadelphia and another 108,000 across the region, many of them in situations like Hernandez.

For larger developers, and for the skilled workers who belong to the city’s influential building trades unions, the situation is less perilous. But it is still dire. Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life sustaining businesses to close. Unlike in states like California and New York, residential construction did not make the cut and was ordered to shut down.

The City of Philadelphia allowed an additional eight days, until this Friday evening to close their construction sites.

Many in the industry feel that may not be enough, especially for projects that are only at the mid-way point. Most construction projects account for periods of time where partly built structures are exposed to the elements for days. But wiring, drywall and insulation could easily degrade if left out for weeks or months, while water damage can cause mold and rot.

“If moisture gets in, it could cost millions of dollars in damage,” said Leo Addimando, president of the Building Industry Association, which represents residential developers.

Developer Ori Feibush is one of them. His projects are in low-rise residential neighborhoods, in the rowhouse communities bordering Center City. These kinds of work sites, he said, take longer to wrap up because they tend to be more spread out than a highrise project.

The developer filed a lawsuit Monday in Commonwealth Court asking for a longer exemption from Wolf’s order, arguing that his more complex developments will need an additional two-to-three weeks to be made safe. The case is still pending.

“We are applying for relief in every venue that exists and hoping to get lucky somewhere,” said Feibush, who owns OCF Realty. “We’re not expecting to work through a shutdown, but there are a couple of weeks that will make an enormous difference between us leaving a job site that poses a risk to neighbors versus a job site that is safe and secure.”

On one OCF project, the roof infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. Lateral bracing hasn’t been installed on the upper stories to protect against stiff winds and fire walls don’t yet go all the way to structures’ upper stories.

For job sites that are earlier in the construction process, the Friday deadline offers more than enough time. In Rittenhouse Square, the Southern Land Company is building a luxury condominium tower on the last undeveloped parcel in one of the city’s hottest residential neighborhoods.

But the project is currently still in the excavation phase, which means Southern Land doesn’t have half-built structures to protect from vandals or the elements. They are installing lighting and more fencing to keep people away from the giant hole they’ve dug into the earth, and sump pumps to deal with water.

“While it’s an enormous site, closing it is much easier than for projects that have a building way up out of the ground that’s got a lot of different fall hazards and material hazards,” said Brian Emmons, development manager for the Southern Land Company. “We’ve just got to keep water out of the hole.”

Builders are also worried about thieves damaging equipment and unoccupied structures, especially because the Philadelphia Police Department will not be prioritizing non-violent offenses like vandalism and petty theft during this pandemic.

“The longer this goes, the hungrier people are going to get, and the more apt people will be to steal stuff,” Addimando said. “It’s only logical. They are predicting 10%-to-20% of the country could lose their jobs in the coming months and when people lose their jobs, they get desperate.”

Across the industry, developers and union leaders wonder why construction wasn’t offered broader exemptions. They feel that open-air construction sites, where workers can keep apart and don’t have to interact with the public, would offer minimal risk. Compare that with beer distributors, which are on the exempted list, and have been mobbed with people.

There are certain kinds of projects deemed “essential infrastructure” that are exempted from the governor’s order, including energy facilities, hospitals, pharmaceutical factories and other medical facilities.

Waivers from the stoppage are being pursued by developers and by the city’s construction unions, said Laborers President Ryan Boyer, although the only example he would provide is the new police headquarters at 400 N. Broad Street.

“We believe that the police administration building is critical, so we have an adequate place for our first responders to meet up,” Boyer said.

He says the trades are developing new worksite safety practices that include fever testing at job sites and mandatory social distancing.

But the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council is not prioritizing residential construction right now.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of waivers that have since been approved, so the construction industry will be working throughout the weekend and next week,” said John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, head of the Trades Council and Business Manager of the Electricians Union.

“Residential is something that we kind of put on hold,” said Dougherty. “We’re not really concerned about that right now. We’re looking at certain big commercial products, hospitals, colleges, police administration, and things like that.

Both Dougherty and Boyer added that despite the relief, there have already been massive layoffs.

For non-union workers like Hernandez, the specter of job loss looms over everything. For undocumented workers, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to access the unemployment benefits or the cash assistance included in the new stimulus package. 

Hernandez said work in their sector has already started to slow and he fears for those who live in overcrowded apartments, some of them away from their families, with little to do. He said he’s already heard from one man on his crew who was unable to work, and called him drunk, trying to borrow money.

“Right now, a lot of us wish we were at home with our families,” Hernandez said.  “We’ve come here to work and we work seven days out of the week. When we’re not working we get depressed because that’s what keeps us afloat here, far away from our families and children.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.