By Susan E. Campbell
Coming out of winter, construction companies were getting ready for building and renovation activity that accelerates with warmer weather. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed things.
The state has ordered non-essential projects be put on hold until further notice.
“The construction industry was in very good shape, both residential and commercial,” said Barry Potoker, executive director of Saratoga Builders Association, a nonprofit trade group. “Prior to the virus, demand was for a lot more building.”
“The rules of engagement are somewhat unclear, as you would expect,” Potoker said. “This is a devastating change for residential construction. If projects are unsafe, the sites are to be made safe and then shut down.”
“Saratoga Builders Association has 160 members who are not just builders, but mortgage companies, lumberyards, HVAC companies, and others affected by new rules,” he said.
There are many other professions tied to the construction industry with their work trimmed or eliminated. Architects, engineers, real estate agents, attorneys, masons, electricians, plumbers and roofers are among them.
Meanwhile all non-essential construction has been limited to one worker per site, even if only a few days from completion. Potoker said, “How much can one person get done on a residential home?”
“It is a challenge to keep a safe distance on a job site, which is why the governor put a stop to it,” said Thomas Albrecht Sr., CEO of Hilltop Construction Co. in Hudson Falls.
“Only one guy on a site is keeping things going,” said Albrecht. “So my cup is half full.”
Albrecht continued to pay all staff until April 2, when they became eligible for unemployment compensation. Some have been with the company 20 years and he expects “100 percent of them to return. Their jobs will be there,” he said.
“We compensate well and promote a good environment to work in,” Albrecht said. He is “saddened” by the developments.
Even if more workers at a site were possible, Albrecht said his company and others would still be “getting inundated with materials delays.”
“The supply chain can be disruptive,” said Doug Ford, vice president in charge of sales and purchasing at Curtis Lumber Co.
“Some truckers from Canada are not comfortable coming into the States,” said Ford. “Manufacturing of all kinds was shut down in Pennsylvania and that has had an impact.”
Many such operations in Pennsylvania “were since deemed essential and are coming back,” he said.
Like the other administrative positions at Curtis Lumber, Ford has been working from home. This the first time he has done so in 25 years with the company, he said.
Curtis is closed to all customers but pick-up is available.
“About half the staff are onsite in our stores, including materials handlers and front-line staff,” he said. “We have had no layoffs.”
The headquarters store in Ballston Spa, where Ford and about 200 other administrative personnel work, houses a
separate building with kitchen and bath showrooms, where customers usually browse for ideas and place their orders. Now personnel assist clients by using their tablets and cell phones to show what items look like so that they can make selections by video, Ford said.
“One positive thing that may come out of this crisis is that the industry is exploring technology that it was not using a few months ago,” he said.
Another is the positive atmosphere among employees.
“The employees are looking out for one another and have the sense that we are in this together,” Ford said.
At Precise Painting & Wallcovering serving the Glens Falls area, owner Jay Dickinson is facing his first layoff in 43 years.
“We have a staff of 18 and have been buried with work we can’t do now,” said Dickinson.
He said there have been winters when his company may be short staffed, but this year they were “swamped” up until the crisis. Now he has to limit his workers to one per project, whether interior or exterior, residential or commercial, and regardless of the size of the building.
Some homeowners may be nervous about having workers inside their homes for the foreseeable future. But Precise Painting’s high-end clientele this time of year is largely absent.
“We have second homes and vacation homes in Lake George that we get ready for the owners to move into,” Dickinson said. “Usually we have October through May to touch up cracks and paint and do other maintenance.”
One such home is 70,000 square feet, others may be 10,000 square feet or more.
“I’m figuring out how to get those projects done with only one person,” he said. “But I am confident we will work our way through.”
Dickinson said he is “amazed at how the public has responded to how we all should act. Job sites have turned super clean. The staff often gets the flu this time of year, but not this season because of these new practices,” he said. “I think it will be a long time before relaxing these standards of hygiene.”
Dickinson’s company is “the only contractor allowed in Glens Falls Hospital right now,” he said. “We did the coronavirus command center there.”
He said his estimator is busier than ever.
“There is no limit to what he can bid on,” he said. “He does bids remotely from home, based on floor plans and parameters he receives electronically.”
The professionals all recognize the financial impact on the community as a whole.
“My heart aches for the nonprofits who rely solely on gift givers,” Albrecht said. “I can imagine a company that was instrumental in supporting an organization going into survival mode. Everyone is in survival mode right now. You can’t give all your cash away.”
Potoker said that the 25th annual Saratoga Showcase of Homes scheduled for mid-September may be delayed, or worse.
The residences showcased, most of which are under contract with a buyer, may not move along unless and until the residential construction mandate is lifted.
“We are in a holding pattern because these are high-end private homes and deemed non-essential,” Potoker said.
Construction trade associations throughout New York have reportedly asked the state to allow residential construction to resume while maintaining strict adherence to the higher safety standards recently imposed.