RENO, Nev. — The coronavirus outbreak and state shutdown has put serious strain on workforces across Northern Nevada.
The construction workforce is no exception. Unemployment in the industry in April was more than triple what it was at the start of the year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving more than 1 million more construction workers without work.
Those who still have jobs have to quickly adapt to operating with new safety gear on and new safety measures in place as the pandemic keeps the Silver State idling in Phase 2 of its reopening plan.
With Reno-Sparks entering the summer building season, in mid-June the NNBW spoke with Eloy Jara, president of Laborers Union Local 169 (which represents over 1,200 workers in Northern Nevada) about challenges for the construction workforce and what the outlook is for the rest of the year.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted Northern Nevada's construction workforce?
Jara: We've had to adapt to the pandemic. Our workforce has started exercising social distancing, using a mask on the job, so we've had to adapt to the safety requirements. The other thing the pandemic has affected is that many jobs have been turned off. We had the Sands (Regency) job going, that was closed because of the pandemic. There have been several jobs that have scaled back and pretty much shut down.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges for the workforce during this time?
Jara: One of the biggest challenges our workforce has been dealing with is the jobs that require guys working close together. Another challenge is going to be the funding of projects that we're going to be dealing with shortly. There's going to be a shortfall of money for projects to be funded.
Q: Is that something the workforce is concerned about?
Jara: Yeah, our workforce is definitely concerned about funding. That's something that's pretty big. They're well aware if there's no gas tax coming into the system, if there's no casino tax revenue, it's going to affect construction because of the funding mechanism that projects are funded by taxpayers. If we're not pumping gas, we're not funding projects. The roads are going to suffer pretty bad as far as funding goes.
Q: What kind of things can be done to help mitigate that?
Jara: From what we see, we think that if we activate the economy responsibly and we exercise social distancing and we take all the measures to work responsibly, we could possibly trigger the economy to get back on track. And that would make sure that a lot of construction projects that were slated to go are not being affected by this pandemic. Because no matter what, we still need the roads. We still need to put money into our infrastructure.
Q: What can you tell me about Local 169's health and safety campaign?
Jara: We activated the health and safety awareness campaign to try to bring awareness to all construction workers to practice social distancing, to work safe and to be aware of their surroundings and exercise social distancing and protect themselves with the proper PPE gear to do their jobs to the best of their ability. We're pushing for the workers to use masks, safety glasses and gloves. That's what we're promoting, on top of using their hardhat and work boots and safety vest.
The new thing we've added is the mask that we're pushing for our entire workforce to use. We have thousands of masks, and we've been passing them around to contractors. Our business agents are going job to job and passing masks around to make sure they protect themselves. A lot of people appreciate us driving around with the truck with the messaging of social distancing. The community response has been really, really good. We get a lot of thumbs up when we're driving around.
Q: When did the idea for the digital billboard truck come about?
Jara: When COVID-19 hit, construction was fortunate enough to be categorized as an essential business. We as an organization were pretty grateful. So we quickly worked to respond with a supporting message to not only support the governor's mandate that we are an essential business, but we were quick to respond and say, OK, we have the digital billboard truck, why don't we support the message and start supporting social distancing and carry the message to make sure that all workers were working safely.
Q: Has there been an increase in sanitization on job sites?
Jara: Definitely. All of the job sites have clean water for hand washing, so there has been a strong push for if you have a Sani-Hut, you have an area where you wash and sanitize your hands. There are new rules that a lot of the foremen are now following. Foremen before weren't required to have hand sanitizer. Now they are. They're required to have hand sanitizer and have plenty of masks to provide for their workers.
Q: How has the workforce responded to the safety measures?
Jara: That's where our workforce is struggling a little bit because a lot of jobs, they need to be close together — like pipe jobs, bolting up buildings. Our workforce has been struggling with the working together. But, we believe that if both workers are protected and wearing a mask, they can cross that 6-foot measure for 5, 10 minutes, or however long it takes for them to do their job.
Q: Who's in charge of making sure the workers are following these measures to the best of their abilities?
Jara: We actively have two agents checking jobs, and our agents are encouraging and pushing social distancing and wearing a mask. And our agents do it for every craft — plumbers, electricians, carpenters and operators.
Q: As we enter another summer season, what does the future look like for the construction workforce in the region?
Jara: We hope that construction gets back to where it used to be, but with a new normal of giving ourselves the space. Social distancing is here to stay, so we foresee a lot of jobs potentially firing back up. A lot of jobs that are on hold are now going to be activated, like the Sands job. We're staying positive. We're hoping the jobs get back to where they used to be, and we activate a safe economy.