Members of the region’s largest construction workers union are set to walk off the job Monday over mounting worries about coronavirus safety at building sites.
The North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters is directing its roughly 10,000 members in Massachusetts to stop working, effective Monday, saying it’s essentially impossible to keep construction sites safe from the spread of COVID-19.
“We didn’t come to this conclusion lightly,” said Tom Flynn, the union’s executive secretary-treasurer. “But despite the good intentions of developers, contractors, and subcontractors, nothing we’ve seen has been able to ensure the safety of our members, or workers at other sites.”
It’s the strongest move yet by construction unions worried about safety on job sites, where workers often share trailers, portable toilets, and close quarters. The Massachusetts Building Trades Council — an umbrella group of skilled trades unions — has urged Governor Charlie Baker to implement a statewide construction shutdown, as states including Pennsylvania and Washington have done, even as some of the council’s workers remain on jobs around the region.
Boston and Cambridge have largely stopped projects in their cities, citing the challenges of containing the easily-spread virus. But work continues in many suburban towns. In some cases, there are more workers than ever on site as contractors bring in those who have been furloughed from jobs in the city.
Last week, the Baker administration issued safety guidelines to encourage separation, and better sanitation, on construction sites. Earlier this week, it said work on office buildings and other commercial projects should be halted. But — citing Massachusetts’ longstanding housing shortage — Baker has told residential developers they can keep building. He has said work can also continue on health care projects, roadwork, and essential infrastructure.
Safety monitoring is largely left up to municipal governments. Flynn noted that some towns have shut down projects where workers have fallen ill, but noted that many municipalities lack the resources to do the job effectively.
“In a lot of cities and towns, the very workers who are charged with enforcement are coming down with the virus,” he said. “There’s no real enforcement.”
So the union itself — citing clauses in its contracts protecting worker safety — made the decision Thursday to pull its workers off the job, except for health care projects directly related to the fight against COVID-19. As of Monday, Flynn said, there will be no union carpenters working in Massachusetts.
It wasn’t an easy decision, Flynn said. He said members take pride in their work, and that the union and companies it works with have tried in vain to figure out ways to keep building.
“You’d think you have it figured out. Then you see more and more people coming down with it, being sent home and quarantined,” Flynn said. “It came to a critical point where, for the benefit of our members and our industry, we decided we just couldn’t keep going.”