Construction unions lobby Santa Clara County leaders to loosen restrictions
State Assemblyman Marc Berman talks workers at a construction job site in Palo Alto this week. Image courtesy of Rick Solis.

Statewide and regional stay-home orders have passed the one-month mark, and nearly all businesses are hurting as many employees remain unable to work, upending their finances despite a $2 trillion government stimulus package.

Now, a local construction and trades union is asking the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to recommend the county to relax the regulations to allow its members to get back to earning a living. Meanwhile, health leaders continue to stress the need for social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“Construction, repair and maintenance are vital in the battle against COVID-19,” Bob Alvarado, executive officer of the California Carpenters Regional Council, wrote to the board this month, adding the union has “used every technological resource at hand to give members current information to avoid spreading the virus at work and home.”

Most construction has halted across the Bay Area, where only certain public works projects, health care facilities, shelters and housing developments with affordable housing can remain underway, according to a restrictive health order in place until May 3. The state’s stay-home order, which also restricts some construction projects, does not come with an end date, but Gov. Gavin Newsom this week loosened some restrictions.

The economic impact of the Bay Area’s strict order paired with social distancing mitigating the spread of the disease justifies the request, Rick Solis, the union’s Northern California marketing representative, told San José Spotlight. The advocacy, he added, is not a matter of the union asking for special treatment.

“All I can do is advocate for us; safety is part of our DNA. That is why we were created,” he said. “I understand what we do; I don’t understand what (non-union workers) do … on a regular day, our guys are the gold standard. We are eager to get our members back to work under the safest conditions possible doing the job.”

State Assemblyman Marc Berman (left) and Bob Nibbi, owner of Nibbi Bros. General Contractors (right) discuss safety protocol at a housing development in Palo Alto this week. Image courtesy of Rick Solis

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese this week convened an ad-hoc committee comprised of leaders from the six counties and Berkeley, which have more restrictive shelter-at-home orders than the state. The committee recommended loosening local construction restrictions, though it has no authority over public health officials, like the Board of Supervisors.

“It is very clear that residential and construction work can be done with just as much safety as public works projects,” Cortese said told San José Spotlight, adding that “common sense dictates that some of the rules can be changed without a significant risk to life.”

David Bini, executive director of the Santa Clara Building and Construction Trades Council, echoed Solis’ sentiments, saying unions are not trying to keep non-union workers from returning to work, just that they can only “vouch” for union members. Relaxing construction restrictions is a natural first step because the industry is at the “edge of critical,” and workers have no contact with the general public, he added.

Cortese said construction workers — both union and non-union — appear unified in their request to return to work. He isn’t worried honoring the request will open the floodgates for more industries to ask for special consideration.

“I don’t think anyone is going to get special treatment just because a certain industry is deemed to be safe,” Cortese said. “If somebody calls up and says they want to open a crowded bar or a crowded sports event, they are not going to be able to replicate those safety standards in a crowded bar or a crowded sports arena.”

A letter sent to supervisors by union representatives argues several services provided by union construction workers, such as cabinetmakers who design and build face shields for Kaiser, are “crucial infrastructure.”

Assemblyman Marc Berman, who represents parts of the Peninsula and Silicon Valley, is encouraging public health officials to consider relaxing the restrictions after walking through a union job site in Palo Alto on Wednesday.

“I was impressed by the safety precautions that the workers are taking, including trainings on COVID-19, wearing masks and gloves, maintaining social distancing whenever possible, washing their hands more often, and checking every day for any signs of illness before they begin work,” Berman wrote in an email statement to San José Spotlight.

John Hammerschmidt, CEO of the non-union Hammerschmidt Construction, said allowing unions to get back to work cuts both ways.

While unions may argue they have impeccable safety standards, unions jobs typically have a larger scope, he said, meaning greater exposure.

He doesn’t have a problem with the shelter-in-place rules being relaxed, so long as it is done fairly.

“If you open it for the unions, you should open it for anybody that can maintain safety for the coronavirus,” Hammerschmidt said. “If you can get a big construction project going again, why can’t you get a smaller one going again?”

According to Gallup, in 2019, union membership dropped to its lowest level in 15 years, falling from 15% to 10%. Still, 37% of government employees belong to a union compared to 6% of private sector employees.

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department did not comment on whether it plans to support lifting the construction restrictions.

Contact David Alexander at d.todd.alexander@gmail.com.

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