Thousands of construction workers this week returned to work in Austin. What are developers doing to ensure safe work sites?

(Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)

After most residential construction briefly shut down across the city of Austin, home building crews now have the opportunity to return the work.

On April 2, an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott went into effect that allowed all residential construction across the state of Texas to continue. Residential construction was identified in the order as an essential business supporting critical infrastructure.

The order superseded any local prohibitions on residential construction, including the ban that was set in place by Austin in late March. On March 24, the city of Austin issued an order that all residential construction sites must close, with an exception made for projects that include affordable housing units.

“It is critically important in times of unprecedented disaster and crisis, that we can rely on our public officials. Difficult and complex decisions need to be made and implemented, and we applaud Gov. Abbott for acting swiftly and decisively to protect Texans,” said Carrie Ciliberto, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, in a statement provided to Community Impact Newspaper.

Following Gov. Abbott’s executive order, thousands of contractors and tradespeople will now go back to work on construction sites across the city.


Austin’s Development Services Department late on April 2 issued supplemental guidance on health and safety for home builders to follow as construction sites reopen.

“Austin Code inspectors will continue to monitor construction sites to ensure that social distancing and recommended hygiene practices are being observed,” wrote Denise Lucas, director of Austin Development Services Department, in an April 2 letter to stakeholders.

As they resume work on building sites, developers and home builders told Community Impact Newspaper they expect some setbacks caused by the city of Austin’s brief ban on residential construction.

While some timelines may be affected by the brief pause in construction, every home builder that Community Impact Newspaper spoke to said their crews are ready to get back to work and earn paychecks, even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Contractors are ready to get back in there because they were facing laying people off,” said Wes Peoples, founder and president of Wes Peoples Homes.

CONSTRUCTION DELAYS

There was only one week of downtime between the city of Austin’s initial ban on residential construction and Abbott’s executive order that opened the industry up again. Following its March 24 prohibition, home builders said the city of Austin gave sites three days to wind down construction, so as to leave unfinished sites in a safe position.

Some projects across the city may be delayed for weeks or months because of that brief pause, said Guillermo Carillo, owner of Lecasa Homes & Renovations.

“I have suffered a delay. It’ll take me a couple of weeks to get back,” Carillo said. “We hadn’t placed a cabinet order for one of our projects. ... Now we’re back to the end of the line, and we could’ve made that deposit last week.”

Other developers suggest the brief pause period will impact separate projects differently, depending on their progress.

Peoples said that his homes that are nearing completion likely will still get delivered on time, as the Development Services Department stated it will continue to send inspectors out to sites.

However, Peoples expects his houses that are in the infancy of construction may see timelines change as crews had to stop work.

“Houses that are in earlier stages, you’re probably looking at a 2-3 week completion pushback,” Peoples said.

Meanwhile, commercial and residential projects in pre-construction phases should remain relatively unaffected, Rastegar Property Company founder and CEO Ari Rastegar told Community Impact Newspaper.

Rastegar said his Austin-based development firm, which has projects across the city that aren’t scheduled to break ground for another year, will move forward with design and permitting as scheduled.

“I don’t believe it is going to impact us at all in that regard,” Rastegar said.

As of yet, developers and construction crews that spoke to Community Impact Newspaper for this article have not reported a shortage of building materials.



JOB SECURITY

Across the Austin area, tens of thousands of construction workers now have the option to return to work sites.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the construction, logging and mining industries accounted for 71,600 jobs in February across the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan statistical area, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission. That represented an 8% increase in total jobs year over year.

“The amount of psychological stress [the construction ban] has put people through is more impactful than the simple economics of it,” Rastegar said.

In Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, the Texas Workforce Commission estimates construction jobs account for at least 5% of all jobs in the workforce, and as much as 9.99%.

There was a fear among local home builders and real estate organizations that Austin’s residential construction ban could potentially drive laborers out of the area to go find work in other metropolitan areas across Texas and the U.S.

“These subcontractors can pick up and go where there is a lot of building going on and they'll do it in a blink of an eye,” Peoples said. “Likely the governor’s order came down before they left.”

ENSURING SITE SAFETY

The Austin Development Services Department on April 2 issued supplemental guidance for home builders ready to resume work at their sites.

The document provides safety mandates and recommendations for all commercial and residential work sites across the city.

According to the document, the city mandates that each site pre-screens the general health of each worker; provides at least one handwashing stations with soap or hand sanitizer for each 15 workers; prohibit the use of community water coolers; disinfects shared tools, common areas and touch points such as doorknobs or keyboards at least twice a day; and post social distancing guidelines and notices on how the site manager is limiting crew sizes and rotating shifts.

Peoples said the new safety standards on his sites extend beyond current construction sites. The home builder said he now has to disinfect and deep clean homes— before they open for walk-throughs by inspectors, real estate agents and potential homebuyers.

The city further recommends employers take no adverse action against workers who self-quarantine or decline to work at a construction site.

Prior to the distribution of the Development Services Department’s letter on April 2, Peoples and Carillo said they had taken steps to ensure their construction sites were safe for construction crews returning to work.

“Everyone has been really thoughtful in being careful and following the guidelines,” Carillo said. “The majority of us are telling our trade, ‘It's your choice if you want to come in.’ ... We’re not going to fire anyone and we're not going to refuse to hire someone in the future [if they don’t come in.]”
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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