Construction in the time of Covid: How two contractors are adjusting

By Riley SimpsonSeptember 15, 2021

Brett Strassel, vice president of Hedrick Brothers Construction’s Space Coast office in Melbourne, Fla.

In the past year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. contractors have weathered many different challenges associated with the virus, as well as ongoing issues that already existed within the construction industry that the pandemic has intensified.

Last week, during a webinar hosted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 talked with two contractors about how they have dealt with issues ranging from project delays and rising materials prices to labor shortages and vaccine mandates.

Combating supplier delays and materials shortages

Chris Carson is president and COO of Carson-Mitchell, Inc., in Springfield, Mo., a third-generation firm of engineers and builders in its 75th year of serving southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.

Since the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, Carson-Mitchell’s first main hurdle was convincing the owner of a large K-12 school bond project that Covid “was a real problem,” Carson said.

After Carson’s suppliers experienced shutdowns and delays, he and his crews “took it on the chin” as they had difficulties negotiating the project.

“When Covid first hit, people thought, ‘you can’t blame that for being late,’” Carson said. “We managed to convince the local contracting company that [Covid is] a legitimate reason for delays and higher prices.”

For Brett Strassel, vice president of Hedrick Brothers Construction’s Space Coast office in Melbourne, Fla., the start of the pandemic featured fewer hiccups than Caron experienced in Missouri.

Strassel recalled jobs being shut down in late March 2020, but within two days, they were fully back to work.

“In Florida, from federal, state and local perspectives, construction was deemed essential,” Strassel said. “There was never too much of a shutdown in our region. We went through Covid protocols and [learned to] work differently, but we never really stopped or slowed down. We never had to get our momentum back.”

And the region’s location mattered: According to Strassel, central Florida has experienced a big population boom, so the demand for educational, municipal and other key construction hasn’t slowed during the pandemic.

However, in 2021, Strassel said his firm has been hyper-affected by materials shortages – but the demand for projects hasn’t slowed down.

“Never in my 25 years [of experience] have I had issues with getting materials; now, it’s 30 days,” Strassel said.

Although his firm still hasn’t shut down any jobsites, Strassel’s projects have slowed down due to materials delays. When asked, Strassel said he doubts the situation will change quickly based on conversations he’s had with suppliers.

Carson is facing similar issues and uncertainty with delayed shipments.

“I just talked to an owner who’s waiting on steel, and all I could tell him was: ‘[The steel] is on the train. I don’t know where the train is, but it’s on its way,’” Carson said.

Chris Carson, president and COO of Carson-Mitchell, Inc., in Springfield, Mo.

Labor shortages and vaccine mandates

Construction’s labor shortage is an ongoing issue, and although the AGC webinar included recruitment and staffing solutions from Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s CEO, and Allison Scott, Director of Construction Thought Leadership and Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Covid-19 is still “exacerbating the labor shortage,” as Sandherr said, with the issue of vaccine mandates.

Carson said that hospitals – usually the biggest buildings and sources of many construction projects in his region that includes Missouri and Arkansas – are starting to require vaccines for all workers on their premises, which includes contractors.

As of July figures, only half of U.S. construction workers had received an inoculation – although AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson said rates among contractors have been rising over the past few months— and it’s a particularly thorny issue for Carson’s firm, as they’ve had trouble getting employees vaccinated against Covid-19.

“As far as mandating [the vaccine at our company], we’re the tail end of the whip in this part of the country,” Carson said. “We can’t run people off for being unvaccinated. It puts us in a position [where] we don’t want to infringe on anybody’s decision, but [project owners] put the onus on us that our people are following the rules. That makes the HR dept lose their mind.

“It’s one thing to provide your [10-Hour OSHA Authorized Card], but a vaccination passport is another,” Carson said. “In this part of the country, there’s a lot of resistance.”

Strassel agreed that Hedrick Brothers Construction wouldn’t implement a vaccine mandate for its employees.

“We’re letting people make their own decisions,” Strassel said. “[We’re following] CDC, OSHA and AGC guidelines for healthy and safe work environments.”

(Editor’s note: CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 talked to Carson and Strassel before President Joe Biden announced the Path out of the Pandemic plan, which calls on OSHA to require vaccines or weekly Covid-19 tests for companies with more than 100 employees).

Without mandating vaccines, both Carson and Strassel have been dealing with employees’ Covid cases amid the labor shortage and materials delays.

Carson said that the biggest motivator outside of a mandate is missing work: “If you get Covid, you’re out of a paycheck for a couple weeks, and that has changed a few minds,” he said.

And if key people miss time, such as a superintendent who tested positive for the virus and stayed home, a project’s timeline and productivity can suffer.

“It certainly mucked things up for a week,” Carson said. “Key people being out is the issue.”

With a subcontractor base for his company’s workforce, Strassel said it’s been common to see people go out sick; however, with the booming community in Florida, there’s still no shortage of projects.

“The hours are plentiful here,” Strassel said. “Someone could miss a paycheck or two because of Covid, but there’s ample opportunity to make that up with the work available.”

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