Oregon’s Construction Industry Is Chugging Along Like It’s Still 2019. Some Workers Say That’s Dangerous.

Gov. Kate Brown’s March 23 order did not restrict construction sites. An avalanche of workplace complaints ensued.

(Henry Cromett)

Since he became a carpenter 20 years ago, Ben Basom has always advocated for more work for him and his colleagues, not less.
But now, Basom, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents 6,500 workers in Oregon, 4,000 in the Portland area, isn't so sure he wants his members on construction sites.

"Our union likes the idea of shutting down work on anything that's not legitimately essential—like hospitals or roads," Basom says."It feels strange to me," he continues. "We're normally out there looking to increase market share and get more jobs."

What's got Basom and his brethren concerned, of course, is the novel coronavirus. On March 23, Gov. Kate Brown ordered the shutdown of many businesses. But among those that are still open are a lot of construction sites, and that's causing an avalanche of workplace complaints.

In an economy that glowed red hot until this month, hardhats are ubiquitous. They're working on numerous apartment and office jobs in Portland; at massive expansion projects at Nike and Intel; and on the University of Oregon campus.

"For safety's sake," Basom says, "those are jobs that might be deemed 'inessential.'"

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made that distinction, ordering that "nonessential" construction projects shut down. That's unusual. Only Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania have also issued such orders.

"We are applauding Inslee's decision," Basom says. "We would definitely support it. In Oregon. Our members' safety is our top priority."

Of course, many people want construction work to continue in Oregon. Both Associated General Contractors, which represents construction companies, and the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council have urged that construction be deemed "essential" and allowed to continue. And Basom acknowledges that many carpenters are eager to continue working.

Brown's March 23 order did not restrict construction sites.
"Construction work can continue as long as the business designates an employee or officer to establish, implement and enforce social distancing policies," explains Elizabeth Merah, a spokeswoman for Brown. "The Oregon Health Authority has the authority to determine if additional business closures are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19. Right now, specifically shutting down construction is not one of their recommendations."

Construction of a Ritz-Carlton in downtown Portland. (Henry Cromett)

Oregon's construction workers, like many across the country, are wondering whether it's safe or necessary to go to a job site.

In the first three weeks of March, the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health agency received 67 complaints detailing workplace safety concerns involving the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But in the week beginning March 23, the day Brown issued her order, the agency received 1,152 COVID-19-related complaints. In a typical year—the entire year—Oregon OSHA gets 2,000 complaints.

OSHA does not have enough staff to immediately investigate those complaints, according to spokesman Aaron Corvin, so it's hard to assess their validity. But it's clear workers are fearful. Their concerns underscore the balance Brown is pursuing: containing the coronavirus without killing Oregon's economy. Or, as she put it in a press call last week, "continuing to protect the health and safety of Oregonians and protecting their livelihoods."

The COVID-19 complaints come from every kind of business—but many come from construction, which as recently as January employed about 110,000 workers.

Unlike many workers who can do their jobs from home or have a high degree of control over their spatial relationship to colleagues, construction workers perform tasks that require them to be in close proximity: lifting or guiding heavy objects into place; reading blueprints; passing in stairways or narrow spaces.

On big jobs like the Intel and University of Oregon projects (which include both the Hayward Field renovation and construction of the new Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact), there are also steelworkers, carpenters, pipefitters, electricians and concrete workers laboring at the same time on the same site.

"We call it 'trade stacking,' where one trade is getting on top of another," says a veteran worker on the Hayward Field project, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the press. "And you've got guys who chew tobacco and spit everywhere or blow their noses with their thumbs because they are outside."

The Hayward Field worker says the project's general contractor, Portland-based Hoffman Construction, has issued strict instructions on social distancing—rules that, in practice, are not obeyed.

"Hoffman is definitely trying to practice social distancing," the worker says. "But there are certain aspects of construction work that are not one-man jobs."

A complaint filed with OSHA on March 30 about the Knight science campus project captured another problem. "Multiple employees are working in lifts next to each other, and lunch shacks are packed full of employees sitting next to each other," the complaint said.

Hoffman is the general contractor on both the UO projects and at Intel. Dan Drinkward, a Hoffman vice president, says the construction giant is vigilant on all its projects.

"Our top priority is to safeguard the health and safety of our workers through this crisis, and our procedures and sites have changed so that we can fulfill that commitment," Drinkward says.

"Hoffman will absolutely stop work if we are not able to provide a safe and healthy workplace."

Intel, which is building massive new manufacturing facilities, has been the subject of more than 20 COVID-19-related complaints to OSHA. Intel spokeswoman Linda Qian also says the company is doing all it can.

"At Intel, maintaining safe facilities is core to how we operate," Qian says. "At our construction sites, we are working closely with our general contractors to implement social distancing, increased cleaning, and other protocols to safeguard the health of all workers."

Workers' concerns extend well beyond mega-projects like UO and Intel.

A supervisor on a large Portland apartment project, who is also not authorized to speak to the press and requested anonymity, shared similar concerns, noting that from when workers arrive in the morning—many still carpooling, in violation of social distancing—to when they unload trucks full of appliances or other supplies, they are in close proximity. And proper sanitation is a problem when dozens of workers use the same porta-potty.

"On our entire site, there is one hand-washing station," the supervisor says. "It does not have warm water and is not near most of the portable toilets onsite. The last time the portable toilets were serviced, the hand sanitizer was not refilled."

The supervisor raised questions about safety in a conversation with a senior manager.

"I told him it's not possible to enforce social distancing measures," the supervisor says. "He said, 'No shit.'"

Basom says there were brief COVID-19 shutdowns at two server farms under construction in Prineville but those jobs are up and running again. Because it's so hard to ensure social distancing,

Basom says he hopes Brown will follow Inslee's lead and shut down nonessential jobs like building new office space.

"In Washington," Basom says, "the question our members came to was, 'How is this work essential when the people we're building projects for are working from home?'"

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