Earl Hall, Executive Director, Syracuse Builders Exchange
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry and the skilled craftsmen and women who continued to work have been deemed a key component of New York State’s essential workforce. Contractors and their employees, while not immune from contracting or spreading COVID-19, have been able to complete vital projects, while limiting the spread of COVID-19 by following the latest health and safety recommendations from the New York State Health Department, New York State HERO Act, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, with the rise of COVID-19 variants, such as Delta and Omicron, the New York construction industry is now subject to some of the same rules and regulations from 2020. Construction industry leaders believe that responding to the COVID-19 virus is of critical importance for the health and safety of construction workers throughout New York State, their families, and communities.
While over 80% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, most industry leaders remain committed to encouraging all construction workers to get vaccinated unless there are underlying circumstances that would not permit one to receive the vaccine. Many believe a vaccinated workforce is vital protection for the employee and their fellow workers. A vaccinated workforce is also important for the industry and the contractors who have contracts in place to perform for a General Contractor or project owner. Penalties for non-performance or an untimely completion of a scope of work is real and can be devastating to any business owner who failed to anticipate labor issues on a particular project.
On November 5, 2021, OSHA announced that it published a new workplace safety rule through an Emergency Temporary Standard. On November 12, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a motion to stay OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS. If not overturned by the courts, this new OSHA requirement will cover all employers with federal contracts, as well as those employers with more than one hundred employees. Covered employers will have to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work. Additionally, many project owners, both public and private, are mandating all contractors and employees performing work on their site must be fully vaccinated or produce a negative COVID test result. These requirements are mandatory for all employers regardless of the number of employees employed.
At a time where there remains a significant labor shortage, losing valuable employees from an employer’s workforce due to governmental regulations, and some or many employees choosing to not being vaccinated poses unimaginable challenges for construction industry employers. Without workforce compliance, construction industry employees will miss out on valuable work hours, while many employers may choose not to bid projects for fear of not being able to supply the appropriate work force to complete the project on time.
It is anticipated the industry will have a significant increase in building and infrastructure work over the next 5-7 years, in particular upstate New York. This construction work is expected to last for many years, but to bid on and secure these projects will require that all associated with the employer meet the OSHA, New York State and/or project owner rules for mandated vaccination or weekly testing. To ignore these rules means losing out on the billions of dollars in future projects and job opportunities. Additionally, ignoring such requirements exposes construction contractors to increased pressure to supply skilled labor to their projects, thus potentially jeopardizing the long-term viability of an employer.
While respecting personal opinions of whether or not vaccines should be mandated as a condition of employment, one being vaccinated addresses a government identified safety issue for employees and their coworkers while not limiting potential employment opportunities. And, equally as important, not causing undue pressure on employers who may not be able to supply enough skilled labor during an historic labor shortage era.
This is the new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic – governmental and project owner mandates on employers and employees, all while employers endure a labor shortage and supply chain crisis. The industry cannot afford to lose any more employees from the workforce for any reason. Contractors rely upon a skilled and available work force. Each employee leaving the construction workforce poses great risks to contractors and project owners alike.
In the end, the COVID-19 vaccine will be the antidote that will attack a pandemic which has limited our freedoms and may threaten our future. Regardless of where one’s position is on vaccine mandates, personal freedoms, freedom of choice, etc., construction industry leaders must address this issue as an unvaccinated workforce impacts more than just the unvaccinated employee. It impacts others on the job site and the very contractors who employ them.
During an unprecedented era of significant labor shortages and supply chain disruptions in the construction industry, employers today cannot afford to lose employees from their workforce. The project owners and governmental mandates may get more demanding over the next few months before such may be relaxed in 2022. While learning to live with COVID-19 in our day to day lives will someday be the new norm, it is evident project owners and government officials today are not ready to address this.