Rolo, a 31-year-old construction worker, found out it was his last day at work on Friday, March 27th. New York State had mandated that most construction sites shut down. He wrapped up the day at the construction site of a 50-floor building in Court Square and took the train home.
Rolo, whose last name isn’t being used because he is undocumented, cherished the stability that his job provided. “When I first came to the U.S. I was working in the service industry but I switched to construction 4 years ago because of the job security, it’s a fixed daily rate and you know for sure that you will have work all week,” he said.
Construction is the latest economic sector to be shut down in New York. Starting March 27th, the construction of condos and residential buildings is no longer allowed until further notice, only essential infrastructure and affordable housing remained exempt. This left construction workers in a tough spot, while they felt that going to work was unsafe, it also left many without any other income.
As cities across the U.S. paused “non-essential business” activities, construction seemed to be one of the few on-site jobs that would dodge the hit. It makes up 4% of the national GDP and the total value of new private construction amounted to $974.7 billion in 2019. The industry argued that people still need homes and that the safety protocols in place are enough to protect workers. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then designated single-family and multifamily construction as “essential infrastructure business.”
“We’ve been in constant contact with our friends at the White House, talking about the need for construction to be viewed as an essential activity during the expected downturn,” said Jim Tobin, the chief lobbyist at the National Association of Home Builders (NABH).
Video of a Canadian worker protesting on the job site is becoming viral amongst workers in the U.S.
Despite the economic pressure to keep construction going, states can supersede this federal recommendation as they tighten their social distancing measures. “We’ve been behind this virus since day one,” is the message that Governor Cuomo emphasizes over and over to justify the measures that prioritize public health over the economic impact.
States such as Washington, Michigan and Pennsylvania have also paused “non-essential” construction, but most states, even those who report a high number of cases such as California and Florida, continue to exempt construction from their statewide shutdown orders.
NABH’s map shows where construction is allowed to continue.
The construction industry employs almost 11.2 million people in the U.S. With the exception of immigrant workers, most of them are older than the national average workforce: 37% are millennials, 40% are generation X and 23% are baby boomers.
Studies by the Pew Research show that 13% of construction workers are unauthorized immigrants. The $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill that provides some relief to their American peers does not cover them.
Monse, an administrative assistant for Visaar Corp, a construction company in Brooklyn, tries to remain positive but she’s concerned about her coworkers. “I worry about the construction workers who live paycheck by paycheck, I don’t know how they will get by,” she said. A week ago, Visaar Corp had an average of 70 construction workers on-site, today they have none. Although Monse’s hours have been cut by more than half she decided not to file for benefits because she wants to leave the pool of money for “those who really need it.”
Despite the uncertainty ahead builders remain confident that they will bounce back. “The economy will experience pain in the months ahead, but we think a rebound lies at the other side of this crisis, one in which the housing market will lead the way out,” said economist Robert Dietz.
Whether or not builders are allowed to continue their work, they will still see a decrease in demand. “There is an issue that during this period of weakness a lot of businesses won’t want to invest, you’ll have almost no construction, so you’re not building new homes or offices,” said Ethan Harris, an economist at Bank of America.
Like most construction workers, Rolo is paid for the days he’s onsite. He earns $200-$250 per day. Some of his coworkers stopped showing up before the state mandate kicked in, but Rolo remained until he was laid off.
Rolo was unemployed for only a weekend, as the following Monday he got a call from his boss telling him he could return to work. The building he was working on includes affordable housing units, so his work continues to be exempt after all.
“I’m scared, and I know that I’m taking a risk by going, it’s a personal decision I make every day,” said Rolo. “No one knows how long this will last, so I want to work for as long as I can to save some money so that I can be prepared for a longer shutdown.”