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, sent a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday urging them to come up with relief plans for construction workers. Some of the recommendations the union put forward include family and medical leave for their members, and a new emergency safety standard for work during the outbreak.
"I want to stress the importance of making sure that federal action to address COVID-19 should benefit the workers and families who are bearing the brunt of this crisis," LIUNA general president Terry O’Sullivan wrote.
Stellman said the calls for financial assistance are important for those workers, and at the same time, the government should stress better safety standards. In addition to the number of risks construction workers face while doing their tasks, Stellman said the sanitary hazards are far more concerning.
Things like a lack of clean toilets and sinks to tight lifts and a lack of personal protective equipment raise the chances that the workers will contract COVID-19, she said. Stellman warned that the country should learn the lessons from the excavation and extraction work that took place at Ground Zero after 9/11 when workers were not protected from the poisonous atmosphere.
"We operated there 24/7 without any precautions and we are still paying the price for the brave guys who did all for us," she said.
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."