WRAL Investigates

Construction work continues amid coronavirus outbreak

Posted April 6, 2020 6:34 p.m. EDT
Updated April 7, 2020 12:23 p.m. EDT

— While the sounds of jingling glasses and utensils are now silent at restaurants, the heavy hum of equipment and popping nail gun sounds are still reverberating on construction sites across North Carolina.

The construction industry is deemed essential under Governor Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order, so the work goes on.

WRAL Investigates was contacted by workers and contractors who feared continually going to packed job sites would put them and their families at risk.

"The most important thing is the health and safety of our employees," says John Thompson, president of Cary-based general contractor J.M. Thompson.

We spoke to Thompson not long after he was told the COVID-19 outbreak had hit his company, "He didn't think it was coronavirus. He thought it was the flu," says Thompson of the employee who's now in isolation after saying he had tested positive.

The company is tracing the employee's movements. For now, they believe he had limited contact with others, so job sites won't have to shutter.

Like many other settings, work sites are also seeing changes. Many now include hand sanitizers and hand-washing stations. Sharing of tools is also limited.

Workers are told to abide by social distancing rules, according to Thompson. "In cases where it's not possible for them to keep their required distance or recommended distance, we're trying to furnish masks and gloves."

Dave Simpson leads the Carolinas Associated General Contractors. He applauds the decision to keep sites open.

"It's essential that we be able to know that we can rely on a solid infrastructure," Simpson says.

According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 231,000 people in the construction industry in North Carolina as of February.

But Simpson adds there's also plenty of uncertainty, "People are grateful to be able to go to work, but at the same time, we're very concerned that everybody be safe."

On top of health concerns, many builders face delays because some contractors aren't traveling and needed supply chains are slowed.

"A lot of the materials are just not getting there, whether it's the delivery or manufacturing holdups," says Thompson.

Although he says current working conditions are difficult, Thompson says construction companies and workers are trying to make the best out of a bad situation. "They want to work, and we want them to continue to work. So we've got to walk that fine line and try to provide that safe environment so they can continue to work."

Editor's note: The day after this story aired, Thompson contacted WRAL News to say the employee who believed he was positive had, in fact, tested negative. This story has been updated to reflect that fact.

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