The debate over restarting construction projects in Pennsylvania, explained

  • Ed Mahon/PA Post

After Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a halt to most construction projects in Pennsylvania, Tony Caciolo looked to see what his workers could still do.

He’s the president of Monogram Custom Homes in Lehigh County, a company that specializes in building homes from scratch that include custom features like a basement bowling alley or a shooting range under the garage.

Caciolo’s workers are still allowed to make emergency repairs and shore up project sites to prevent weather damage. For example, workers can’t install windows on a new home, but they can nail plywood boards to empty frames to keep the rain out.

Even though there’s only so much of that temporary work to do, Caciolo said he didn’t lay off his 15 employees. Instead, he shifted them to cleaning swimming pools.

At first, he thought it was odd that cleaning pools was OK but shingling a roof wasn’t. But then he dug a little deeper, learned about health risks from bacteria growing in untended pools. Still, pool maintenance doesn’t bring in much money.

“It’s almost zero,” Caciolo said, later adding, “It’s keeping my guys busy, basically.”

He said his company usually generates $1.2 million in revenue a month. Now, he expects that to fall to about $30,000. He wants the state to allow home construction projects to resume and believes it can be done safely even as Pennsylvania reports more than 25,000 positive coronavirus cases and 584-related deaths.

“The risk of two workers, working outside on a roof of a house, 20-, 30,- 40-, 50- feet apart is negligible,” Caciolo said, “especially when they’re taking precautions with masks and other things.”

In Harrisburg, the debate over letting Caciolo and his fellow construction company owners resume work pits Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf against the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) is pushing legislation, House Bill 2400,  to reopen all residential and commercial construction in Pennsylvania, provided workers take certain precautions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another Republican-backed proposal, Senate Bill 613, would open many more types of businesses by having Pennsylvania follow guidelines from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Those guidelines, issued on March 28, label about two dozen types of construction-related work as essential, including housing construction “to combat the nation’s existing housing supply shortage.”

Turzai’s bill is still working its way through  the state House. But the House voted 107-95 to pass Senate Bill 613 on Tuesday with a nearly party-line vote. Two Republicans from southeastern Pennsylvania — Thomas Murt and Todd Stephens — joined Democrats in voting against the measure. That measure now moves to the full Senate.

Opening up construction could have a major impact on workers across Pennsylvania.

Wolf’s March 19 shutdown order had the potential to impact about 2.3 million Pennsylvania workers, according to an analysis by Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research

That includes about 281,000 workers in the construction industry, although Briem noted that his estimates don’t account for workers who are allowed to work through waivers or another exemption.

Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council, said the group hasn’t taken a position on either GOP-backed bill.

“We’re approaching this with a lot of sensitivity and very carefully,” Sirianni said last week. “Because there’s no way I personally want to be responsible for one of our members dying from this or one of their family members. And I think everyone has to make that their first priority.”

On Tuesday, he said the group was still neutral, but does want to see the restrictions on construction projects lifted, if it can be done safely. But he said workers should still be allowed to collect unemployment if they decline to return to work because they fear exposing themselves to infection.

Under the governor’s order, some construction can continue in Pennsylvania. The state Department of Community and Economic Development says emergency repairs, as well as work to stabilize sites and prevent weather damage, can take place for most types of construction, including homes. Construction of new health care facilities is also allowed.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education told school districts not to apply for a waiver from the state when deciding whether to continue with construction projects. Instead, the department says school districts “should use best judgment in exercising their authority to continue critical construction projects.” The guidelines don’t say how schools should decide what’s critical. In the Lehigh Valley,  The Morning Call reported school district leaders were working with engineers, contractors and lawyers to decide whether to move forward with projects.

Some businesses received waivers from the state allowing work to proceed on construction projects, including a planned casino site in South Philly and the Mariner East pipeline. But the Wolf administration has declined to release the full list of businesses that applied for a waiver and isn’t accepting requests under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

In Luzerne County, construction-company owner David Balent said the waiver process was difficult to navigate. He said he applied for one and never heard back.

Balent was unsure whether he was allowed to continue a construction project at a food processing and packaging plant, a business on the state’s life-sustaining list. But he made a decision to continue the work after talking with some attorneys.

Balent’s workers finished that project, and now his four employees are idle, spending their time in the shop cleaning and repairing equipment.

“I’m hanging on as long as I can right now,” he said. “I can’t see very many companies making it without going back to work and violating the order.”

In Montgomery County, Jon Sukonik said his construction company was working on two projects to build a total of 10 houses. Two homes were already finished, but the other eight are on hold.

“We have one buyer who is contacting us almost daily to find out if we’ve heard anything,” Sukonik said. “Their frustration is high.”

Daniel Durden, chief executive officer for the Pennsylvania Builders Association, said some states made more exceptions for the types of construction projects. In Delaware, all types of constructions are listed as essential. In California, most residential and commercial construction was halted in the Bay Area, but Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said the state had worked closely with trade groups to ensure that construction could continue safely elsewhere.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s guidelines say work on projects “exclusively designated as affordable housing” can continue. So can work on residential projects where people have already entered into a legally binding agreement to live in a home by a certain date and construction is needed to ensure the home is available.

Durden’s group supports restarting all residential construction. But he said the New Jersey model is one his group could live with.

“I’m sure we have many construction companies and contractors who will find that very difficult and will find that something of a straitjacket, but it will at least allow our guys to finish those jobs,” Durden said.

In Lehigh County, finishing jobs that already started is one of Caciolo’s top concerns. He said temporary measures to weatherproof sites will eventually fall short. Mold could grow and other damage could occur. He appreciated the legislative action in Harrisburg, even if he expects Wolf to veto it.

“Lawmakers are trying to apply some common sense to this,” Caciolo said.

Wolf, for his part, believes coronavirus mitigation efforts need to continue, at least until the climb in new cases slows to a point where public health officials are confident hospitals won’t be overwhelmed by new cases. He has opposed House Bill 2400 and Senate Bill 613. But in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Wolf did not pledge to veto the Republican-backed bills.

Some groups representing frontline health workers agree. For example, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses & Allied Professionals opposes Senate Bill 613, saying health care workers still lack safe levels of personal protective equipment. And the group said opening the proposed businesses without a comprehensive plan from public health officials would have ripple effects and encourage people to break the state’s stay-at-home order.

“Any haphazard break in mitigation efforts will cause the case rate to increase drastically and to flood our hospitals and health systems with new COVID-19 patients,” the group said.

 

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