Construction roars back into gear

Many builders spent the downtime educating employees and emphasizing safety.
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Michigan’s construction industry is dusting off and back in the field after nearly a month-long shutdown, and West Michigan leaders are boasting of the industry’s resiliency.

The Business Journal recently reported Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implemented an amendment to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order on May 7, allowing construction trades to resume work provided they still follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines.

Pioneer Construction was ready, said Executive VP Chris Beckering. The Grand Rapids-based general contractor started early in anticipation of reopening by working with trade associations 

“Construction is in a unique position,” Beckering said. “Our people are already wearing PPE per their jobs, so having another layer of protection on that is easy to implement. Our people, every day before they start their job, they’re developing a safety plan.”

According to Whitmer’s amendment, workers in the construction industry — including plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, etc. — were allowed to resume work provided they practiced CDC-mandated safety guidelines, such as staying 6 feet away from others and wearing the proper PPE, as well as develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan.

Construction companies also must restrict the number of workers on site, promote remote work to the fullest extent possible and prevent workers from entering a premise if they show respiratory symptoms or have had contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

Bob Filka, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Michigan, has been a vocal advocate for reopening Michigan’s construction industry. He said the new order took a lot of stress off everybody’s shoulders.

“People are getting anxious about survival, honestly,” Filka said. “Good news is all our guys have spent the last several weeks training themselves on safety.”

Filka argued the time off from work allowed Michigan builders to better equip themselves with the tools and knowledge to resume work and respond to COVID compared to neighboring states where contractors have remained working.

“Customers and homeowners who are going to be concerned about people coming into their home to do work can rest assured those guys have gone through the training they need to be safe,” Filka said.

Filka said HBAM has had thousands of its members participate in COVID safety training and he’s confident in their commitment to stay safe on the job.

“Unfortunately, we represent four- or five-thousand people, and there are probably thousands more who need the training,” Filka said. “But I feel good about our membership and their commitment to safety.”

Orion Construction in Grand Rapids also has spent the down time ensuring project superintendents and other staff understand the new safety protocol going forward, as well as making sure there’s enough hand sanitizer and PPE on site.

As with everything, there will be some who embrace it and some who won’t, said Orion President Roger Rehkopf. “The challenge is to get everybody to understand.”

Rehkopf expected there also will be a scramble among contractors to make up for lost time. Orion has a backlog of projects, he said, including some the company didn’t expect would go through when COVID hit, which should make up for projects that have slowed.

The economic seas remain relatively calm for construction for the time being, Filka said. HBAM made a big education push early on to ensure members understood the assistance they’re entitled to under the Paycheck Protection Program.

The supply chain is likely going to experience a shortage as a result of the COVID lockdown, Filka predicted. If people want that special countertop or cabinet, they may have to be patient.

Labor also is an area of concern, as it was even before COVID became a household name, but Filka was happy to say most HBAM members reported their workers are coming back in full force.

Rehkopf added how other industries respond to the pandemic pose unanswered questions for construction.

“The hospitality industry — hotels, bars, restaurants — what are they going to do? They’re probably not going to start projects for a while,” Rehkopf said. “Are interest rates going to hold or go up? Those are all factors that could play in a year, two years down the road.”

There still is no shortage of work, Filka said. Many customers around the state know it’s hard to find a good contractor right now, and many contractors had long waiting lists before COVID hit.

“There’s no question there were customers who wanted to get out of contracts,” Filka said. “The vast majority of our builders have experienced that, but each of them are handling those situations individually.”

Beckering also reported a robust backlog of projects for Pioneer. While ongoing projects were put on hold during the shelter-in-place order, none were cancelled, and the contractor even was awarded new work during the hiatus.

“We’re concerned about how the economy is going to respond, but we have a full load of work,” Beckering said. “The construction industry, I think, just needs to work smart and work safe. We are well-suited to lead the economy back into a working routine.”

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