By the time Adam Lucas walked inside the spacious, upscale home overlooking Lake Austin on a chilly morning last week, a newly begun remodeling process was in full swing. It was clear to Lucas, the owner of a successful green building company, that the subcontractors he had hired to rip out drywall and pull wiring out of the ten-foot ceiling were making good progress.
Normally Lucas, who was dropping by to see how much progress his team had made, would’ve been pleased. But on this morning, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas was nearing 14,000, the 37-year-old business owner’s keen attention to detail had zeroed in on something else: of the ten workers at the busy construction site, only one, a foreman in his fifties, was covering his face with a protective mask. Making matters worse, none of the men moving casually around the work site appeared to be practicing anything approaching CDC-standard social distancing, which the state requires of businesses that continue to operate.
The violations didn’t last long. After Lucas made his presence known, workers’ bandannas were once again covering their faces and people began spacing themselves apart. But when a subcontractor and another worker showed up at the site a few minutes later, both men walked among the laborers without a mask. Lucas could only shake his head, his own mask concealing a frustrated grimace.
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Though he has limited the number of his employees at work sites, and posted strict health protocols there that demand hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing, Lucas knows he’s not just battling a deadly contagion. He’s also battling the perception, prevalent among some subcontractors, that the contagion isn’t really a big deal.
“No matter how many people have died,” he said after discussing health protocols with the foreman and leaving the site, “it’s clear that some people in this industry are still not taking the virus seriously.”
Much of Texas may be shuttered by COVID-19, but construction sites are one of the few pockets of life where an alternate pre-virus mentality flourishes. Governor Greg Abbott’s March 31 executive order shutting down much of the state deemed residential construction an “essential” service during the pandemic, overriding a City of Austin order to the contrary that was implemented days earlier. The order allowed Lucas’s company, A.R. Lucas Construction, to get back to work.
From Oracle’s sprawling campus in East Austin, where a construction project wraps around the building, to building sites along South Congress Avenue and on residential blocks on the city’s East Side, construction workers can be seen roaming sites without protective gear, packing into trucks, and eating lunch in close-knit groups. In a male-dominated industry that relies on a rugged workforce accustomed to physical risks, it’s hardly surprising when people don’t follow health guidelines—but that’s not without consequences.
Construction sites are frequently germ-ridden and chaotic, with numerous workers often sharing a single portable toilet and limited access to soap and running water. On busy job sites workers come and go, interacting with different crews circulating through the city. They share tools, rides, and even food, spending long hours in close proximity to one another. Further, the industry is plagued by a high percentage of uninsured workers.
In Austin, where residential and commercial construction resumed April 2, local health officials confirmed to Texas Monthly that some people working in construction have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks. At the University of Texas at Austin, researchers, have modeled how different types of construction activity could influence the pandemic’s local impact. In a worst-case scenario in which fewer precautions—such as the use of protective gear and limited contact between workers—are taken, they project that allowing the area’s 50,000 or more construction workers to continue to work could triple the number of people hospitalized by the disease.
For Lucas, who relies on dozens of subcontractors for a single project in addition to his own staff of full-time employees, each day now presents a grim ethical dilemma: a choice between the demands of the project and the health of workers at his job sites. As he moved among sites last week, Lucas seemed to spend as much time checking on employees’ protective gear and sense of safety as he did managing the complicated details of constructing buildings. Work that would normally take two to three days, Lucas said, can now take five to six.
He’d prefer a temporary, government-ordered halt to all on-site construction until the pandemic passes, allowing him to move his employees to their millwork shop, which is a controlled environment. But temporarily shutting down his on-site business would not only be a disservice to clients he has spent months working with and employees who’d like a paycheck, he said, but would violate contractual obligations, inviting lawsuits that could financially strain the business.
In Texas, Lucas knows his desire to temporarily press pause, erring on the side of caution, is an anomaly. Until the pandemic arrived, the state was in the midst of a years-long construction boom, boasting three of the nation’s top ten housing markets (Houston, Dallas, and Austin) and a fourth (San Antonio) not far behind, according to the Texas Association of Builders, which says there were more than 100,000 single-family homes built in Texas last year. The first quarter of 2020 was on pace to be the best in the state’s history for much of the home-building industry, according to Scott Norman, the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders.
Though Dallas County has also implemented construction safety rules to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as temperature checks and social distancing, only Austin halted construction entirely. Following Abbott’s overruling of that ban, the city has implemented rules requiring job-site managers to rotate crews, ensure physical distancing of workers, and maintain sign-in documents for all workers on the site.
But at construction sites around the city, it takes only a few minutes of observation to conclude that much of that isn’t occurring. Even health officials admit that safety requirements aren’t being enforced. “Code enforcement officers are focused on education and ensuring that construction industry partners know the latest information to keep their workforce safe and healthy,” city spokeswoman Emily Tuttle wrote in an email.
Lucas said educating workers is not as simple as handing someone a pamphlet, especially with major news outlets having downplayed the severity of the virus for months. There are also distinct cultural differences in play that must be considered.
“At least 40 percent of the workforce on construction sites are undocumented and don’t have health insurance,” Lucas said. “When it comes to a virus they can’t even see, they’re thinking, ‘I’ve risked my life to get across a border, I’ve seen worse. If I don’t get paid, I don’t get money for my kids to eat dinner tonight.’”
Dianne Bangle, CEO of the Real Estate Council of Austin, pushed back against the notion that the city had to strictly choose between safety and economic health. She identified the city’s latest order requiring that construction teams include a “safety monitor” on site at all times as a good solution.
Norman argued that it’s fairly simple to social distance when you’re only allowed to have ten workers at a residential job site. The key, he said, is having daily safety talks and spacing out different sub trades over time (i.e. electricians, roofers, welders) so that, in most cases, only a single crew is working at a site at a time and there’s minimal interaction.
He also argues that the service is an essential one. “After food and medicine, shelter is vital,” he added. “We heard stories of people being forced to move in with relatives or looking for RVs because they’d moved to town and the city wouldn’t let them finish the job.”
But as long as construction firms are tasked with self-policing, Lucas thinks it’s unlikely that infectious disease safety will be the top priority. He isn’t the only builder troubled by the area’s working conditions. Last week, David Maxfield, who owns a residential and commercial electrical company, told KUT that he and his crew recently left a crowded job site in Round Rock where workers from other subcontractors weren’t maintaining social distance.
When one of Lucas’s employees stormed off a job site the week before last, accusing another worker of failing to adopt safety protocols, Lucas was understanding, even apologetic. The offender, who didn’t understand the health protocols, later returned wearing a mask and work continued.
With everyone experiencing the strain of the pandemic in different ways, Lucas said he understood the tension.
“How can you in good conscience ask someone to go into an environment that’s unsafe?” he asked. “It’s not safe for you to go outside your house, but it’s safe to come here and do trim work? How does that make any sense?”