Construction unions call for better safety, health protections during pandemic

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ABC News Corona Virus Economic Impacts

Workers have to choose between pay and COVID-19 exposure, unions say.

Working in construction during the coronavirus pandemic has split the industry down the middle, according to advocates and health experts.

On one hand, buildings, roads and utilities need regular maintenance and upgrades, and millions of blue-collar workers need those jobs to support families, construction union leaders said. At the same time, those close-knit worksites and, sometimes, unsanitary work conditions are ripe for exposure to the virus, according to Jeanne Stellman, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who specializes in workers safety issues.

“The question is, ‘What jobs can be done safely?'” she told ABC News. “This is a time when those generally poor standards [at construction sites] need to be addressed.”

Stellman and other advocates called on the government to come up with immediate solutions to address both issues before they create a deeper economic and public health problem on the nation.

More than 7.6 million Americans worked in a construction job in February, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many states, including New York, the hardest hit by the pandemic, construction projects have continued after being deemed essential services.

Ken Rigmaiden, the general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which has over 111,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, estimated that half of the construction sites in the country have shut down since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Rigmaiden noted one of his members, Tureka Dixon, a single mother from Philadelphia with a child on the autism spectrum, lost her construction job recently and is desperate to get back to work.

“People need to be aware of that in this industry, if they don’t work and don’t get paid, they are hurt,” Rigmaiden told ABC News.

The union leader added that governments should be using the construction workforce to their advantage as the need for new hospital spaces and coronavirus testing centers soar. Rigmaiden acknowledged that some workers would prefer to stay at home to avoid contracting the disease, for which there should be assistance.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which has half a million members in North America,

Construction workers take a break on their jobs, March 26, 2020 in New York. Some construction workers building luxury condominiums are being forced to work in the city by their companies, while across the country schools, businesses and places of work have either been shut down or are restricting hours of operation as health officials try to slow the spread of COVID-19.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Carlo Scissura, the president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, a trade group that represents developers and construction companies, said several major companies have instituted stricter health safety policies in the last few weeks. Several companies, he said, are taking the temperatures of their workers when they arrive on site and are asking any employee who feels sick to stay at home.

“A lot of these sites are union sites and unions have clear guidelines for their employees,” Scissura told ABC News. “We’re monitoring to see if there are site-specific cases where there are people who aren’t given the opportunity to go home if they’re sick.”

Stellman said she hopes the situation will spur elected officials and industry leaders to take a good look at the health safety standards in construction sites concerning pandemics and institute stronger safeguards.

“Construction workers have always stepped up to their responsibilities to provide us with the structures that we need for our lives,” she said. “They have shown to do it at great risk and we as a society have to ask that the risk they take is absolutely minimal.”

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