Construction workers report to job sites with masks under hard hats as slowdown looms

An estimated 12,000 people work construction in Philadelphia. These workers returned to new rules and a changed economic landscape on Friday.

Construction at 1324 Frankford Avenue in Fishtown.

Construction at 1324 Frankford Avenue in Fishtown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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John Melchiorre has a lot of feelings about returning to work Friday.

Melchiorre, a carpenter and lead supervisor for G&M Efestos Contracting, was laid off when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf shut the construction industry down six weeks ago. He applied for unemployment benefits, but never heard back, forcing him to negotiate with his bank and cell phone carrier to put off his bills. G&M Efestos recently got federal aid to put workers back on payroll, but Melchiorre hasn’t fully recovered from weeks of no income, he said.

“I’m excited, I am, [but I am] nervous,” said the 49-year-old Delaware county resident. “My wife is a little over two months pregnant, so thinking about bringing home any kind of COVID scares the hell out of me.”

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The construction worker is one of thousands who will go back to job sites that have sat dormant for more than a month to slow the spread of coronavirus. Most of them will return to job sites in Philadelphia, where an estimated 12,000 worked before the pandemic interrupted a boom that has transformed the city.

That market has changed. But the most obvious differences on job sites will involve safety.

‘A much-needed boost’

Starting Friday, construction workers will be wearing masks along with their hardhats.

Guidelines issued by Governor Tom Wolf’s administration require workers to wear a mask covering their face, and maintain social distancing on the job site as much as possible. Contractors must provide hand-washing stations for workers, and appoint a ‘pandemic safety officer’ for each project or work site. Residential projects are limited to four workers on the site at one time.

“As we start to take steps to reopen the state, we recognize that the construction industry is vital to Pennsylvania’s economy and may operate safely with stringent guidance in place that will protect employees and the public,” Wolf said in a statement. 

Most other states exempted construction from their shutdown orders. In Pennsylvania, at least 120,000 construction industry workers filed initial unemployment claims between mid-March and mid-April.

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Wolf originally planned to restart construction May 8, but moved the date up a week after receiving pressure from the development industry, construction unions, and Republican lawmakers.

In Philadelphia, work can only take place between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and no construction activity is allowed in occupied residential structures. The Philadelphia Board of Health is considering regulations to increase fines for contractors that violate these regulations, said Mayor Jim Kenney.

“I’m confident that the resumption of construction activity in Philadelphia will prove to be a much-needed boost to economic activity in the city,” Kenney said. “I’m equally confident everyone involved will be vigilant about adhering to these safe procedures and protocols as this work resumes.”

‘Who’s going to feel safe?’

Developers and contractors say they’re grateful to be getting back to work — but think a return to normal business operations is still a ways off.

“Who’s going to feel safe going back to an environment when they are going to be around other people?” said Leo Addimando, managing partner of the Alterra Property Group and president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia. “That’s an unknown.”

Contractors also now need to source hard-to-find personal protective equipment and adjust their routines to fit the requirements of social distancing. G&M Efestos Contracting owner Greg Karamitopoulos has spent weeks stocking up on masks, no-touch thermometers, and other safety gear in anticipation of getting back to work.

“Obviously, it is tough getting masks,” Karamitopoulos said. “We pay a premium for them, but we’re getting them.”

In addition, Addimando said, many laid-off construction workers are now making more money through unemployment than they did at their job, which could make it difficult for their employers to convince them to return to work.

Some skilled construction workers have left Pennsylvania over the last month to work on construction jobs in other states, according to the Pennsylvania Builders Association.

“When we were totally shut down and our neighboring states were continuing to work — reasonably enough, those guys went where the work was,” said Daniel Durden, the group’s chief executive officer. “So we are worried some of those guys won’t come back … if somebody is paying the freight why disrupt that relationship?”

Durden said that, while construction has been given the green light to restart, many of the manufacturers that make supplies builders need have not.

“It’s really tough to invite a family to move into their house and say ‘by the way, we will get to your kitchen a month from now because we can’t get the product,’” Durden said.

‘Give us a call back in a couple months’

Even as the city reopens for business, developers expect a markedly tougher market for building.

Industry contacts say that safety concerns mean they will be moving at a much slower pace than they were before the pandemic hit. And developers worry that, when their current slate of projects are completed, there won’t be many new ones starting.

“[Our lenders] are not even interested in underwriting a deal right now,” said Ori Feibush,  founder of the Philadelphia-based real estate developer and brokerage company OCF Realty. “They’ll just say ‘give us a call back in a couple months here, we are just not looking at anything new.’”

Feibush said the slowdown will be felt most in the commercial sector, as people adapt to working away from an office, and eschew gathering in large groups at malls or in other commercial spaces.

“As a property manager here that manages well north of 1,000 units, we collected better than 98% of our outstanding residential rents [in April,]” Feibush said. “We collected 20% of our retail tenants, and have no expectation of May, June, or July being any better.”

Addimando, of the Building Industry Association, said he expects some building projects slated to begin this fall will not start.

“I think real estate development … will take years to pick back up to its prior pace,” he said.

John Melchiorre said, despite missing his work, he wishes he had the option to stay at home for at least a while longer.

“It seems like now everybody’s health is put behind making a dollar,” Melchiorre said. “I understand people have to eat, people have to pay their bills, and it keeps the country moving, but sometimes you just can’t get blood from a stone.”

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