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Construction Workers Are Often Deemed Essential. Not All Projects Seem To Be


At a time when most Americans are being ordered to stay at home, exactly who is an essential worker? Turns out the answer may depend on which state you live in, especially when it comes to construction workers. In California, they're deemed essential, regardless of the type of project. From member station KPCC, Natalie Chudnovsky reports.

NATALIE CHUDNOVSKY, BYLINE: Around LA, construction continues on offices, apartment buildings and single-family homes.

JOSE: (Non-English language spoken).

CHUDNOVSKY: Jose (ph) is a construction worker who's doing framing on a house in LA. He's asked we only use his first name because he fears otherwise he won't be able to get future work. The subcontractor who hired Jose provided gloves, goggles and a face mask. But Jose said it was impossible to do the work required while staying 6 feet apart from his co-worker.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) Yes. It's because you can't really have that much distance because you have to be very close together due to the nature of the work.

CHUDNOVSKY: As a construction worker, Jose's considered essential in California, which means he can keep going to work despite stay-at-home orders.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) Well, now I don't really want to go anymore because if I get sick, I'm the one who provides here. And if I get sick, well, what's the family going to do? I don't depend on any help.

CHUDNOVSKY: In response to questions about whether construction such as apartment renovations are essential, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters recently that renovating and building homes in a state with a housing shortage is critical. Construction sites now have to meet safety criteria like providing protective gear and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Garcetti said any site not following these guidelines would be shut down.


ERIC GARCETTI: Right now, we absolutely need as many places and spaces where people can space out. As long as people can do that work while abiding by the public health restrictions, we will see that as critical, yes.

ROBBIE HUNTER: So it's really the type of work we're doing that we're basing our decisions on whether to keep working or not.

CHUDNOVSKY: That's Robbie Hunter, the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a labor union that represents some construction workers in California. Hunter says construction lends itself to physical distancing in a way that, say, office work does not.

HUNTER: The productivity of construction through the years is workers split up, like a production line in a factory, only we are pretty far apart.

CHUDNOVSKY: But this isn't consistent from site to site. Hunter says if workers feel unsafe, the union supports them staying home and filing for unemployment. But there's a sector of the construction workforce that doesn't have that option. Pablo Alvarado is the co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. He says the federal financial rescue package leaves out a crucial sector of the workforce - those who are undocumented.

PABLO ALVARADO: Those are the ones that in my view are going to be forced to go out there and look for work. And they're not just going to put themselves at risk. They're going to put others at risk.

CHUDNOVSKY: Of the 1.4 million construction workers in California in 2016, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that nearly a quarter million were undocumented, including Jose, who we met earlier. For him, regardless of the circumstances, working is the only option.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) It's out of necessity that one has to work to make rent. If not for that, we would stay home because, to tell you the truth, it's putting ourselves at risk.

CHUDNOVSKY: The LA mayor's office says city inspectors are visiting construction sites to make sure everyone's following the coronavirus safety rules.

For NPR News, I'm Natalie Chudnovsky in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Chudnovsky
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