Local construction companies and contractors are engaged in talks with city and county officials to ensure that building projects are not disrupted should a shelter-in-place order be issued here in Houston. Just yesterday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order requiring county residents to shelter in place through April 3.
Russell Hamley, president of the Houston chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, told the Houston Business Journal that he has met with members of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff, as well as representatives of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, via video conference several times in recent days, arguing that construction should be considered an essential service under any shelter-in-place order that might be issued as local officials continue to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19
Currently, no such order has been issued. In separate March 23 press conferences, both Turner and Hidalgo said a stay-at-home order would likely be unnecessary unless local residents fail to comply with measures already in place. But Hamley thinks construction is “essential to the business of the county” and that the potential downsides of shutting down job sites would far outweigh any potential benefits.
“Many of our vital infrastructure systems require ongoing maintenance to ensure that the public continues to have access to water, electricity, and sewage,” Hamley said. “Beyond that, projects dealing with roads,
manufacturing and petrochemical facilities are essential to securing the safety and operation of the United States.”
Hamley also noted that a number of local hospitals are in the midst of renovation projects that will provide additional hospital beds once they are completed.
“Putting any of those projects on hold will keep new health care facilities from being delivered at a time when they are needed more than ever,” Hamley said.
Hamley said he made that point when speaking to Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Dave Martin last week and continues to make that point when speaking to Hidalgo’s team.
Hamley pointed to Dallas’ shelter-in-place order, which included public works, residential and commercial construction among the operations that were exempt from the order.
“We hope that marks a precedent,” Hamley said. “We’ve been speaking with other associations and even the unions, and they are all in line with that position.”
Meanwhile, the Houston chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors has also been busy providing best practices and guidance to its 400 member companies in and around Houston. The organization has advised site managers to limit workers to small groups when working on individual projects and to hold lunch in shifts to keep groups of workers in contact with one another as small as possible, Hamley said. Additionally, ABC-Houston has provided guidance on what site supervisors should do in the event that a worker shows up with signs of illness.
“We have heard from some of our members that they are using scanning thermometers to check workers. If someone shows signs of high temperature, they are being sent home,” Hamley said.
Just last week, Houston-based Arch-Con Corp. shut down one of its sites for a day after a worker showed up to work while sick. While it is not yet known whether the worker suffered from COVID-19, Arch-Con sent all its workers home for the day to allow cleaning crews to sanitize the site.
The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has also raised new legal questions for contractors and subcontractors.
ABC-Houston has also been speaking with human resources teams to advise them on some of the recent changes to the Family Medical Leave Act that President Trump signed into law late last week.
Hamley said one issue raised by the law is whether a worker is entitled to pay if they come down with COVID-19 and have to be quarantined for up to 14 days.
“Subsequent guidance appears to show that the worker will have to be paid. But there is still a question about whether the contractor is entitled to be reimbursed by the government,” Hamley said. “The new law raised more questions than it answered.”
That said, construction trade associations did receive guidance on one significant issue recently, Hamley noted.
New rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following the COVID-19 outbreak appeared to require all cases of COVID-19 among construction workers to be reported as an on-site illness. That could have hurt the safety records of contractors with workers who came down with the disease, making it harder for them to get hired on new projects,
Hamley said. The rule has since been changed to make it clear that cases of COVID-19 are only required to be reported if they can be shown to have been contracted on the job site.
“Construction companies are judged on their safety records,” Hamley said. “That rule essentially assumed guilty before being proven innocent. We were pleased it was changed to innocent until proven guilty.”