The mini boom in construction is keeping paychecks and some economic activity going in certain areas, but health and safety remain a top concern for union officials. McGarvey, who is a member of President Trump’s advisory committee on reopening the economy, told me his members are still waiting for the administration to issue a temporary infectious-disease standard for construction. “It just hasn’t happened, and it’s wholly disappointing,” he said.
In lieu of formal federal protocols, the NATBU issued early guidance to its members and contractors for additional protective measures on projects, including setting up multiple entrances and exits to prevent bottlenecks and ensuring that job sites have running water so workers can frequently wash their hands. “Guys have gotten used to it,” McGarvey told me. "A few weeks ago, there were a lot of folks who weren't comfortable. Our absenteeism was high. But as our safety protocols got put in place, and people gained confidence that they were protected, that’s greatly subsided.”
However, he added, “human nature is human nature, and there are still folks that aren’t comfortable even with the proper protective equipment. And for those, we encourage them: If you’re not comfortable, don’t go to work. It’s a dangerous occupation to begin with, and we need you focused.”
The relative good times for construction are unlikely to last long. Although Trump has mused about making a $2 trillion infrastructure bill part of a future economic-recovery package, he and other Republican leaders are resisting an infusion of federal aid to help states and cities close the enormous budget holes that have opened as a result of the pandemic lockdowns. Major public-works projects were a centerpiece of the New Deal in the 1930s, and new infrastructure investment, particularly in the green-energy sector, made up a significant portion of the 2009 economic-stimulus package. On the surface, a zeal for infrastructure is one thing Trump has in common with his predecessor. But the strategist who pushed for a huge infrastructure bill early in the Trump presidency under the guise of economic nationalism, Steve Bannon, has long since given way to more conservative advisers who take a dim view of big spending measures.
Without help from Washington, states will likely cut back. The projects that jurisdictions are speeding up now are ones that were already funded. But the same reduction in traffic that makes it easier to carry out construction now is sapping states of the gas taxes, bridge-and-tunnel tolls, and other revenue needed to do more in the future.
“You can just see how things could freeze up,” says Casey Dinges, a senior managing director with the American Society of Civil Engineers, a trade group. “If all these jurisdictions are worried about their revenue streams,” he told me, “things are going to slow down or stop pretty soon.”