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March 16, 2020
The number of bus riders and cars on local roadways have dropped dramatically as more and more workers are staying home in an effort to stymie the spread of COVID-19.
But what about construction workers? They can hardly tie rebar at home, so their attendance on the jobsite is critical to finishing projects.
A news release from international construction consultant Rider Levett Bucknall said some workers may not report to jobsites for a variety of reasons including their illness, illness of family members, or even fear of taking public transportation. It said if this happens in the short term, contractors may find it difficult to get workers to return to jobsites unless they pay them a premium.
Attorney Jason Wandler at Oles Morrison Rinker & Baker in Seattle said factors such as worker unavailability and supply chain interruptions could potentially impact construction companies.
So, what are local construction companies doing to address the new threat?
Jim Charpentier, principal and director of business development at Seattle-based BNBuilders, said some contractors are taking measures to counter the situation, including his firm.
“I hope to see the industry all take it seriously,” he said. “Most companies right now are trying to get their arms around what this means for business.”
Charpentier said BNB wants to be proactive and transparent about what's going on to its clients and staff.
BNB formed a coronavirus committee to develop a plan to confront potential impacts of the disease. That plan includes strictly adhering to protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Charpentier said they are exercising an abundance of caution by limiting social interaction, large gatherings and employee attendance at big conferences. This already resulted in the cancellation of the company's annual St. Patrick's Day open house bash at its Los Angeles office.
Other measures include restricting company-related travel, encouraging video conferencing and limiting daily stretch-and-flex exercises to 20 or fewer workers.
Charpentier said it's possible a jobsite could be shut down if there was an outbreak, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
In an effort to control potential outbreaks at jobsites and its offices, BNB has a daily sign-in sheet so it can track who is there and when they worked.
The sign-in sheets include these questions:
“Have you traveled to an area with known local spread of COVID-19 in the past 14 days? (China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong.)”
“Have you come in close contact (within 6 feet) with someone who has a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in the past 14 days?”
Charpentier said BNB has not curtailed any operations and no employees have come down with the disease that they know of.
Finally, BNB has a pandemic protocol for what to do both in the office and on jobsites if an employee thinks he or she might be sick or exposed to someone who is.
In Tacoma, John Korsmo of Korsmo Construction said his firm is integrating best practices and leaning on its in-house IT and Virtual Design departments to create or replace traditional mediums and business models with high-tech solutions.
At the Renton office of Guy F. Atkinson Construction, Senior Vice President Bob Adams noted his firm is following CDC guidelines and has no known cases of COVID-19 among its staff.
“To date, we are not aware of any interruptions to our material supply chain, nor are we experiencing excessive absenteeism,” Adams wrote Friday in an email. “Nevertheless, today we were notified by one of our subcontractors that a craft worker's spouse has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The worker has not attended work for a few days and is being tested for the virus. Depending on the results of that test, we will take additional measures to limit the spread of the disease.”
At Bellingham-based Exxel Pacific, President Geoff Stodola said the situation is changing by the hour.
“We are dedicating significant time to staying out in front of this both in looking out for the best interests of our community as well as our employees and business,” Stodola wrote in an email. “Most important is the collective responsibility we all share to create awareness throughout our industry as to how we can work together to minimize the risks and spread of this pandemic, this must come above all else.”
Construction contracts could become a concern if the virus affects a jobsite.
Attorney Wandler said some construction contracts don't have specific clauses for pandemics, but many have a force majeure clause that protects against unforeseen or unavoidable events. He said force majeure clauses can act as “safety valves” to modify a contract, suspend party obligations or even terminate the contract. The caveat is Washington courts typically defer to how a particular contract defines a force majeure event.
Wandler said the situation prompts a lot of questions. For example, what happens if a subcontractor shuts down a job because a worker is sick, but then it turns out the worker didn't have COVID-19? Is the subcontractor liable for the lost days?
Conversely, what would happen if that worker did have COVID-19 and was kept on the job to infect others? Wandler said the subcontractor could be liable for delay claims and liquidated damages.
And, could a worker infected with COVID-19 be considered a hazardous material? “How is bringing a bag of plutonium on the jobsite different than bringing in a case of COVID-19?” he asked.
Wandler said subcontractors may be more exposed than general contractors because they have fewer resources to work with. “General contractors can at least work with the owner and control that,” he said.
Owners, general contractors and subcontractors need to get together to figure out how to handle COVID-19 in their contracts, Wandler said.
“We're in sort of unchartered territory here,” he said. “You need to create your own process so that everybody is on the same page.”
Benjamin Minnick can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.