Construction in COVID: Delaware’s Successes and Failures

Carter Gramiak, Columnist

Almost exactly one year ago our lives were forever changed. Schools and businesses shuttered, travel became nonexistent, and masks became an everyday accessory. For me, and I’m sure many others, being home limited my perspective on what was happening in the outside world. I had Zoom-school 5 days a week, both of my parents were working from home, and we had our groceries delivered on a weekly basis. Besides the occasional outing for a family walk or hike, we were homebodies for the better part of 3 months until things became slightly more normal in the summer. I suspect that my situation closely mirrors that of thousands of other people. One thing that I am certain that few were thinking about was the status of the construction industry; the industry that maintains and builds our towns and cities. What happened with them?

This is a layered question. The establishment and implementation of construction policies hinge broadly on three major actors: the construction companies, the construction unions, and the government. To tell this story, we need to focus on them. 

It’s March 2020, and Delaware’s Governor John Carney and Secretary of State Jeffery Bullock need to establish policies to govern the state through the pandemic. Enter Government Relations Director Doug Gramiak who worked directly with Secretary of State Bullock to create a detailed policy for the construction companies to follow during the pandemic. Through the policy, they were allowed to continue to operate through even the worst parts of the pandemic. Even today, this policy is being followed in order to continue to operate. But what was it? 

Delaware, specifically, created a variety of extensively detailed policies to govern the tradesmen. To list it all would be boring and take several pages, but some highlights include the obvious masks, social distancing, and cleaning procedures. However, there were more detailed policies including restricting the number of trades allowed on a job site at a time to only one (plumbing cannot be there at the same time as electrical, for example.), restricting the number of people allowed at an indoor job site, and implementing surprise check-ins from the Delaware Department of Public Health. But did it work?

The short answer is yes, it did work, and projects across the state were allowed to continue to operate in a semi-normal way. From Gramiak’s perspective, as he monitored state media outlets to see how the policies were working, nothing arose. From a strictly-governmental perspective, things went well. But what about the companies?

 In discussion with the Buccini Pollin Group, one of the largest construction companies in the Greater Wilmington Area, they too highlighted this fact. Through the course of the pandemic, there were no major outbreaks or scandals that would have put into question the various policies that were put into place. In fact, for the Buccini Pollin Group, 85% of the already small amount of positive cases within their workforce originated from activities outside of work. The policies also allowed companies to continue to work on projects, keeping thousands of jobs and allowing job sites to remain un-abandoned. But was this good for the union workers?

Economically, it is abundantly clear that the pandemic had horrendous and life-altering changes on the economy for millions of people across the country. Naturally, construction workers were faced with the same issues. In communicating with James Maravelias, President of Delawares Building Trades and President of the Delaware AFL-CIO, he highlighted something very important; Delaware worked hard to implement policy surrounding construction, other local states such as New Jersey and New York (among others) did not deem construction essential. For literally millions of workers across the country, their jobs were put on hold overnight. For this, Maravelias praises Carney specifically, as the thousands of union laborers in Delaware were able to continue to work and complete projects across the state.

The challenges of the pandemic were, and continue to be, complex and seemingly infinite. However, in Delaware, the construction industry has been able to push forward through adversity and a variety of challenges presented by the pandemic, while effectively preventing the spread of the virus and allowing for thousands of workers to maintain their positions through a harsh economic period. Overall, the state policy and contributions from the Delaware state government were effective and proved to be successful for themselves, the construction companies, and the workers.