In the midst of a pandemic that has shut down the region and hospitalized thousands, dozens of construction workers reported for duty Monday morning at the site of the new Live! Hotel & Casino in South Philadelphia.
The laborers were coming back after a few weeks away because a drywall finisher at the site had tested positive for coronavirus in mid-March. But their return could be short-lived as union leaders say other workers at the site could be at risk and moved to pull them from the job.
In a letter dated April 6, Sheet Metal Wor kers Local 19 President Gary Masino alleges that the general contractors on several high-profile Philadelphia projects including the new 900 Packer Ave. gambling and recreation complex were not complying with Center for Disease Control and Prevention regulations intended to protect the spread of the coronavirus.
“While some job sites have reopened in Pennsylvania via the waiver process, it is unfortunate that the General Contractors on a few of these projects were not complying with the CDC regulations,” wrote Masino in the letter. “Because of this, we felt that the workers on those projects were in danger and it was decided to pull our Local 19 members off of those sites.”
Masino also named the police administration building on North Broad Street and an expansion of the Philadelphia Art Museum as projects that were not complying with CDC guidelines.
It is unclear if the other building trades unions would follow Local 19’s lead. The Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council did not immediately return a request for comment.
Neither Local 19 nor Cordish Companies, which owns the casino, responded to a request for comment on the letter. The lead general contractor, Gilbane Inc., a Rhode Island-based company that bills itself as one of the “largest privately held family-owned construction and real estate development firms in the industry,” also did not respond to a request for comment.
But a foreman on the site, who requested his name not be used because he didn’t have permission to speak to the press, confirmed that one of his men had contracted the virus in March.
“We had already started practicing [social distancing] before, but then somebody came down with it,” the foreman said. “Once we had a confirmation, we shut down for 15 days. We made sure that everybody was good, and the rest of the guys went back to work. Nobody that tested positive has come back yet.”
State awards waiver to keep casino site open
In mid-March, after the worker on the casino site tested positive for coronavirus, Cordish faced another hindrance when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life sustaining businesses” to close. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney gave construction companies an additional week to make their sites safe, but the order was firm: All construction unrelated to immediate emergency needed to stop.
The state’s Community & Economic Development Office (DECD) can grant companies waivers to stay in business through the shutdown. City officials confirmed that Cordish’s South Philadelphia casino site won such an exemption from the state, a waiver that state officials and Cordish described as a safety measure.
“In the case of the casino project, the building is still exposed to the elements and requires critical enclosure and infrastructure work to be completed before construction work can be safely paused,” said Joe Weinberg, the managing partner and CEO of Cordish Gaming Group in an email statement.
While “casino construction” does not meet the state’s criteria to continue operations through the pandemic, the exemption went to Gilbane because of the company’s claim that the site needed to be properly secured before it could be safely shut down, according to Casey Smith, a spokesperson for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
“However, all work on the project should be halted once the infrastructure stabilization work is done,” Smith said.
The state’s policy for granting waivers to non-life-sustaining businesses has been criticized as opaque by many across Pennsylvania.
City authorities have no direct power over the waiver process and a spokesperson for the mayor said that the administration is not involved.
Monday was the casino project’s first day back online, with a greatly reduced workforce for safety reasons. In normal times, as many as 500 workers are employed on the site, which is the size of a city block. This week, there are only 50.
Real estate developers, general contractors and union leaders argue that their industry should get wider permission to open back up, especially given that neither New York or New Jersey have shut down construction. New York and northern New Jersey remain the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic with the death tolls rising daily and projected to continue to grow.
But on construction sites, there is little risk of spreading the coronavirus, industry advocates say, because protective equipment can be worn and social distancing practiced.
Weinberg says the building trades unions and the general contractors association have put in place state-of-the-art workplace safety protocols based on guidelines from the CDC. These include social distancing requirements and additional handwashing stations.
“[We are] staggering trade operations on multiple shifts and with multiple start times to limit the total number of workers arriving at and occupying the job site at any one time,” said Cordish’s Weinberg in his email statement.
Close contact inevitable on job sites, workers say
On Monday afternoon, the foreman on the casino site said the workers have masks and gloves and hand sanitizer use is mandatory. Everyone is under orders to wash their hands before meals and workers are not allowed to sit next to each other at lunch. Wrestling, hugs and other types of physical contact are also barred.
“It’s a whole new way of working in construction right now,” he said. “There’s no handshakes, there’s no brotherhood, there’s none of that stuff anymore. It’s all gone.”
But Masino, the president of Local 19, does not think the general contractor had gone far enough. The union did not respond to questions about which conditions, in particular, they objected to at the site.
“The plan is to give the General Contractors managing these sites a few weeks to try and meet our requests before our members are cleared to return,” Masino’s letter reads. He also warned that his action might just be the beginning of “many other” job closures.
A building trades union member, who has friends employed on the casino site, argued that it’s very hard to maintain social distance on the job. Construction sites are full of objects that are shared among workers all day, porta-potties being notable among them, while many tasks cannot be safely completed alone.
“It’s hard to maintain social distance on a job site,” said the union construction worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. “Even doing things like drywall, you need a second guy and you are within four feet of each other.”
“When you empty the trash can, it sits there, it’s a general use object, and when you are done with it, someone else is going to come and grab it,” he said. “Or the porta-potties, you can’t keep them sanitized. Not a chance in hell. And everyone uses them.”
But the foreman at the casino site, speaking on Monday, said that he felt conditions on the site were as safe as they could be. Hand sanitizer is everywhere, he reported, the bathrooms are clean and the facilities are cleaned after each work shift. (He did not respond to questions about Local 19’s actions.)
“The problem is a lot of guys, like myself, sometimes you feel like you’re the pawn that’s being put in place,” he said. “But you’re getting your choice to do this or not. If you plan to go forward [and work during the pandemic], you’re making good money. In construction, we always had dangers in our business. Now, there’s new dangers.”