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Massachusetts Construction Unions Ask For More Virus Protocol Enforcement

Massachusetts’s construction industry was one of the few to shut down when the coronavirus pandemic first struck in March. Now that the industry is back up and running, the head of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council said he is concerned that the rules in place to protect construction workers from contracting the coronavirus aren’t enforced rigorously enough.

Site supervisor Anastasios Mylonas at a construction site in The Bronx, July 2020.

“The protocols themselves, some of them were pretty decent, but it’s the lack of enforcement that concerns us,” MBTC President Francis X. Callahan told Bisnow. “I think that everybody has come to the same conclusion is that we are on our own. Our members’ safety is our top priority. We are going to police the construction industry, certainly, the union sector of it, to protect our members and their families and protect their safety.”

Callahan outlined his concerns in a letter he sent in May to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker requesting that he take "another look" at the state's reopening plan to add more protections for workers who choose not to work if conditions are unsafe because of a lack of personal protective equipment. Callahan also wants the state to mandate that masks be worn at all times on construction sites.

Baker hasn't responded to his letter, Callahan said. A spokesperson for Baker didn't respond to a request for comment.

Massachusetts contractors, such as Commodore Builders of Waltham, say they take the potential dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Commodore has established safety officers at their job site to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans. It also requires all workers to wear masks on the site.

“All of the sophisticated major contractors truly are [in compliance],” Commodore founder and CEO Joe Albanese said. “Construction always is an industry that has always had a high degree of safety protocols. For us to put added safety protocols in place for COVID was natural.”

Like other construction companies, Commodore is facing a shortage of skilled workers exacerbated by the pandemic. Apprentices, however, are in abundance.

“We need journeyman and skilled craftsman now,’’ Albanese said. “It takes three to five years to create one from scratch.”

The state hasn’t provided the MBTC with information about the numbers of coronavirus infections on construction job sites, Callahan said. He also isn’t sure how many of the 1,700 or so complaints filed with Attorney General Maura Healy are from workers in his industry. A spokesperson for Healy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t need someone’s name and Social Security number, but we need to know if someone on that job site is testing positive so that the members can take the appropriate steps whether they need to get tested themselves or to be in quarantine,” he said.

He has also raised concerns with Baker about what he sees as inadequate protection for workers who chose not to work because of unsafe conditions or insufficient personal protective equipment without losing pay. 

Indeed, after receiving complaints from members, the MBTC stepped up inspections of job sites to make sure that coronavirus safety protocols, which unions helped craft, are being followed, both by the company and by its members, Callahan said.

“Some projects have a mix of union and nonunion workers on them,” Callahan said. “We hear complaints from our members there’s maybe a nonunion contractor on the job where they maybe are not practicing safe social distancing. They are not wearing masks. I have heard reports that on some projects that they are bringing in workers in vans. You can’t put eight to 10 or 12 people in a van even if they are wearing masks and be shuttling them to a job site. That’s just not good enough.”

Many of the problems appear to be on residential construction sites, Callahan added.

The Homebuilders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, for its part, argues that its members are taking the coronavirus seriously, Executive Officer Joe Landers said.

“We have developed online training programs for COVID safety officers for our membership,” he said. “It’s been pretty well received from our members who are both builders and remodelers. They are taking it, for the most part, very seriously."

Contact Jonathan Berr at jonathan.berr@bisnow.com.