Construction industry grappling with COVID-19 response

It's business as usual at many job sites across Ottawa, albeit with certain precautions. Still, many workers worry about accumulating debt as the situation becomes more dire.

It's business as usual at many job sites in Ottawa, albeit with certain precautions

On construction sites, social distancing isn’t so easy

3 years ago
Duration 1:19
Sean McKenney, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, says construction sites often require workers to pair up for safety reasons, throwing a wrench into social distancing measures.

While many business sectors are shutting down and laying off staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry remains in flux, with many job sites continuing to operate, albeit with new rules in place.

"They're definitely asking for the two-metre rule, and in some cases a little more by isolating workers to the different sides of the buildings," said Richard Hayter, director of community relations for the Unionized Building and Construction Trades Council of Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.

Hayter said most companies are also bringing in hot water and more handwashing stations for workers.

"There are challenges, and what I'm hearing is that they're all being met and that their work is progressing, although they're recognizing that it does have an impact on productivity. But at the end of the day, work is continuing."

Hayter said all his organization's affiliates continue to dispatch workers to sites, but some workers are choosing not to go. For example, he said only about 1,000 of one electrical workers' union local's 1,500 members are currently on the job. The rest have decided to stay home due to COVID-19.

"There are workers who have withdrawn from the workforce because of their right to refuse unsafe work or unsafe hazards. And there are people who have been affected by some of the jobs that have not gone forward," Hayter said

Most workers who are laid off or choose to stay home because of COVID-19 will still qualify for EI and other benefits. (Matt York/Associated Press)

Many others are temporarily out of work because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, he said.

"There was a huge expectation that the first day of spring would be the launch of a huge number of projects around the city, but many of them are now in limbo just waiting for either financing or confirmation that their projects will go ahead."

One of the biggest home builders in Ottawa, Mattamy Homes, has decided to suspend all operations. The Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association said it's up to each company to decide how to handle the situation. 

Workers worried about debt

Matthew Day's employer, Ottawa Classic Stairs, has shut down operations, but he said he was thinking of staying home even before that. 

"My wife has a compromised immune system and so I can't risk anything," Day said. 

Richard Hayter, whose group represents thousands of tradespeople in the region, says most employers are implementing certain measures to guard against COVID-19. (CBC)

Day said he feels lucky to qualify for both employment insurance and the extra child benefit payments announced earlier this week, but he's still worried about making ends meet on a fraction of his wage. 

"At the end of this I'll be safe, but I'll have put myself back a huge amount as far as debt goes," Day said. 

"And debt isn't something that you pay off as quickly as you accumulate. If you accumulate ... 40 pe rcent 50 per cent of your salary for a month or two in debt, that could be a year to two years trying to pay that off."

What's worse, Day said, is that there appears to be no end in sight.

"People just don't have that choice. They don't have that luxury to stay home regardless of what the dire consequences may be for the people around them," he said.

"When you face homelessness or when you face defaulting on mortgages, car payments destroying your credit, going too far in a debt that you won't be able to live afterwards, that's not a choice."


Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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