Construction In Texas Is 'Essential' During The Pandemic. Workers Worry Their Health Is Not.

Apr 16, 2020

Kara says she's been having regular panic attacks over the past couple weeks knowing her husband, a commercial plumber in Austin, is going to work.

“I feel helpless and out of control of the situation, just knowing he’s going out there,” she said. (We are withholding Kara’s last name and her husband’s name because they fear retaliation.)

“We're doing everything we can at home to keep our [three] kids safe. We're not going anywhere," she said. "But that only helps so much when you still have somebody leaving the house and coming back.”

Kara’s husband is working to finish a parking garage for new city offices set to open on the Austin Community College Highland campus later this year. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he said, not much has changed on the construction site. Workers share tools and work less than 6 feet from each other. Last week, his company provided hand-washing stations: four for nearly 60 people.

In a statement, the general contractor overseeing the work, Ryan Companies, refuted this, saying it is following all city safety requirements, including rules on social distancing and disinfecting tools. In response to a request for comment, a city spokesperson said the city does not currently own the site and will buy it once construction has finished.

Kara’s husband has asthma. A run-of-the-mill cold often keeps him up all night coughing and struggling to breathe, she said. COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the lungs, and people with pre-existing conditions, like asthma, may have worse outcomes.

He started wearing a mask his grandmother made to work.

Kara's husband said the construction site he works on - a parking garage for new city offices on the ACC Highland campus - does not follow city safety rules put in place because of the coronavirus.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

“If he does get sick, there's a possibility [that] he will be critically ill and be hospitalized and possibly not be able to ever come home again," Kara said.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order last month limiting nonessential activity, he labeled all construction essential. In response, the City of Austin and Travis County issued safety guidelines: ensure 6 feet between workers, disinfect shared tools between uses, provide hand-washing stations on-site. Since then, the city and county have established stricter guidelines, including that all workers cover their faces.

But construction workers and others in the industry say not only are these guidelines hard to imagine on sites where toilets are scarce, but also that some companies aren’t following the rules.

“[Construction is] valuable, no doubt,” said David Loesch, who owns a residential construction business in Austin. “But there’s also no doubt that it’s not essential.”

The spread of COVID-19 on sites is already happening. Austin Public Health confirmed Wednesday that some people working in construction – the city wouldn't provide an exact number – in the Austin area had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that it may be spreading.

"We recognize there may be clusters of cases among workers at construction sites," a spokesperson said by email.

David Maxfield, who owns a residential and commercial electrical company, said he’s been trying to keep his two regular workers safe: equipping them with small bottles of hand sanitizer and taking soap and paper towels to sites to wipe down tools.

He said he and his workers showed up last week to a construction site in Round Rock to remove some old wiring. He said the site felt crowded, with workers not keeping enough physical distance, so he left and told the general contractor they’d be back when they could be the only people on-site.

“I've never had to have that conversation before,” Maxfield said. “Never had to have a conversation to tell somebody like, ‘Hey, this isn't what we're expecting. This isn't what we want. And we'll have to reschedule with you, so you can accommodate the parameters that I need for my guys and myself.’”

'The Will Of The Community'

Earlier this month, UT researchers considered this question: If construction in the Austin area continues as usual, how might that affect the spread of COVID-19? They predicted that, if everyone other than construction workers follow the stay-at-home guidelines and construction sites do not follow new safety guidelines, the number of people hospitalized with the disease could triple.

Credit UT Austin

So, industry leaders are calling on companies to take this seriously. The Homebuilders Association of Austin is asking builders to take 10 minutes to educate workers about the precautions. A national carpenters union said it’s offering an online course for workers to learn about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on sites.

As of Wednesday, a City of Austin spokesperson said, the city had not issued any citations to construction companies in violation of the safety guidelines, and right now, it doesn’t plan to.

“The enforcement continues to be educational-based at this time,” the spokesperson wrote by email.

If construction companies are diligent in adhering to safety guidelines, UT researchers still predict a 9% increase in hospitalizations through the summer.

“There’s not enough code enforcement agents or law enforcement officers. So much of what we’re doing has to happen because of the will of the community,” Mayor Adler said.

That reliance on “will” is what terrifies Kara.

“Things were getting so bad for us at home at night,” she said. “Any time [my husband] moved or rolled over, I was putting my hand on him to make sure he didn't have a fever or he wasn't sick. [I was] getting no sleep.”

An apprentice who works alongside her husband texted him last week to say he’d had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Three days had already passed, Kara said, and her husband had been in close contact with the apprentice during that time.

So, they made the call: Her husband would stay home and forgo a paycheck.

Some workers say they don’t have that option.

A 'Tough Guy' Culture

Fidel, a 55-year-old plumber in Austin, sends money to his wife and daughter in Mexico. (KUT agreed to withhold Fidel’s last name because he is undocumented.) Because of his immigration status, he is ineligible for cash payouts reaching some back accounts this week as part of the federal stimulus bill.

He is far from alone: A 2013 survey of nearly 1,200 workers at construction sites in Texas found that nearly half were undocumented. A $15 million relief package passed by Austin City Council members last week hopes to fill that gap and get relief money to those people who are undocumented, but that money won’t be available for at least a couple weeks.

So, Fidel continues to work on a commercial site in Leander, where he said there are no gloves or masks and workers are often less than 6 feet from one another. He said sometimes there is soap to wash your hands, but often there's only un chorrito de agua – a trickle of water.

“I feel that at any moment an outbreak can happen,” Fidel said in Spanish.

Even if the city and county safety guidelines are enforced, Kara and her husband worry some workers won’t follow them. Kara said when her husband raised the idea of having workers’ temperatures taken before stepping onto his job site, other workers laughed.

There is a "tough guy" culture that pervades the construction industry, Loesch said.

“The whole culture and all of the infrastructure is set up to avoid taking care of yourself for the most part outside of large bodily injuries,” he said. “There is a machismo thing about caring about things like asbestos and lead and toxic chemicals. It's easy to make jokes, to make fun of those people.”

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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