Hundreds of billions worth of construction projects are on the drawing board in B.C. As a result, most construction contractors geared up for even more work this year, despite an already intense pace. This will keep the industry’s GDP and employment contributions growing at the same pace as the provincial economy.
Designated an essential service, construction had to learn new COVID-19 safety protocols on the fly. Jordan Bateman shares the lessons and experience of his construction association.
Construction companies are used to overcoming challenges on projects, and this resiliency was demonstrated in spades as contractors confronted the COVID-19 pandemic.
Open shop construction companies led the way in British Columbia in adapting safer work practices, increasing hand hygiene, and staying at work during the months-long shutdown of other industries. Working with Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Provincial Health Office (PHO), construction companies pivoted to the new reality quickly and effectively, and were deemed an essential service and helped keep pay cheques flowing and our economy moving. The success of the construction industry became a model for other sectors in their reopening.
“The construction industry has been doing phenomenally well – adapting, switching and working with the health authorities to implement the new health and safety rules,” said Leonard Kerkhoff, president of Chilliwack’s Kerkhoff Construction.
At press time in late August, WorkSafeBC had adjudicated just one COVID-19 claim in the construction industry. This is a remarkable commitment to safety by construction contractors and workers in a sector which employs nearly a quarter million British Columbians.
“The proof of our success is in the WorkSafe numbers, where only one case of COVID-19 can be linked to a construction job site,” said Chris Gardner, ICBA president. “Construction has proven how safe and resilient its people are and how focused they are on protecting each other – the global pandemic reinforced that and showcased what happens on construction job sites every day.”
Early in the pandemic, there were fears that construction would be shut down like so many other industries, which would have decimated employers and put tens of thousands of people out of work. Fortunately, a consensus emerged that construction could be done safely, and that stopping work would be catastrophic to both the industry and the wider BC economy. Construction contractors quickly collaborated and developed best practices and protocols which helped the PHO craft a framework on how construction could continue, and Dr. Henry’s designation of construction as a permitted activity.
Despite this designation, work slowed: ICBA members reported to the association that a significant number of workers, as many as 25%, were staying home “out of an abundance of caution,” due to their personal concerns about catching the virus. As protocols came into place and WorkSafeBC inspected sites for up-to-date safety measures, that number quickly fell; by late April, it was 15%; by mid-May, most companies reported that 99% of their workers were on the job. The outstanding, meticulous work construction contractors did to improve sanitation, personal protective equipment, and spacing on their sites, cannot be understated.
“Employees came to sites and saw things were safe,” said Gardner. “Fears of infection quickly evaporated when they understood how seriously the industry was taking COVID-19.”
Every construction employer developed a COVID-19 safety plan, deployed signage, and educated their safety/first aid teams on safe work procedures. Larger sites tapped a COVID-19 safety compliance officer to oversee these efforts.
Sites now screen all workers and visitors to sites every day – asking about symptoms, recent travel, and exposure to others with COVID-19. Some even do daily temperature checks. Every site records contact information for every person who visits.
“Six feet apart,” is the mantra on worksites today. Schedules were revised, work reprioritized, meetings and lunch rooms moved outside, and transportation arrangements adjusted, to keep work contacts down as much as possible.
Some companies mandate masks be worn at all times; others order them when indoors or in close contact with other workers. Sites were split into separate zones when practical in order to again limit contact, staircases became one-way, and hoists were limited to two workers at a time.
Sharing of tools – and other common touchpoints such as pens and coffeemakers – was minimized. Hand sanitizer and handwash stations are found throughout work sites, and common surfaces are disinfected regularly. At construction work camps, interactions are limited.
“The biggest key to the industry’s success has been the discipline and diligence it takes to meet these high health standards every single hour, every single day, on every single project,” said Gardner. “There are no days off from COVID-19 prevention.”
As open shop’s largest construction association, with more than 2,500 members and clients, ICBA also pivoted quickly. The association provided much needed advice and facilitated networking between companies, communicating to the industry what was working. A webpage set up with up-to-the-minute information received thousands of hits. ICBA helped lead the way in advocacy to the provincial government, pushing for policy to keep construction going. ICBA became a member of the BC COVID-19 Business Cabinet, generating ideas for all levels of government in managing the pandemic and eventual economic reopening.
ICBA’s training department moved online, leveraging its large catalogue of on-demand, online courses, and creating dozens of webinars which attracted thousands of viewers.
ICBA’s employee benefits platform returned significant dollars to employers, passing along savings wherever possible, and highlighted all-important mental health services as British Columbians coped with the lockdown.
After closing its office and moving workers to remote locations on March 16, ICBA reopened its doors on June 1 with a set of COVID-19 prevention protocols mirroring the successful work of its members on site.
“Designated essential, construction activity largely carried on in this province, and the industry recognized the grave responsibility that represented,” said Gardner. “It operated with a collaborative spirit, a careful adherence to public health guidelines, and a determination to effectively pivot to dramatically different worksite practices. And it continues on.”
Chris Gardner: Faced with a long, slow economic recovery, now is the time for government to be bold.
Forget any talk of V- or W-shaped economic recoveries, or quick turnarounds. For BC construction companies who are working off pre-COVID-19 project order books, the big question in the industry revolves around construction volumes in 2021. Business and consumer confidence, combined with the ability of governments to fund stimulus projects, will determine the level of activity in the sector in the year ahead.
BC open shop construction companies pivoted quickly and effectively to meet the health and safety challenges of COVID-19. Construction slowed in mid-March and early April as the industry worked with the Provincial Health Officer to get proper protocols in place, but never shut down. Months later, there is only a single documented case of COVID-19 being contracted by a worker on a construction job site in B.C. It’s a remarkable commitment to safety by construction contractors and by the 250,000 men and women working in construction.
It is vital that construction companies be prepared for this slow recovery. 2019 will, in all likelihood, be the high-water mark for construction activity for the next few years.
Every month, the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) tracks hours worked by a large sample size of our nearly 2,500 construction member companies and clients. The impact of COVID-19 is clear – there has definitely been a downturn in BC construction activity from 2019 to 2020. As ICBA reports:
- 2020 started off very strong with a 6% increase in hours worked in January and February, over the same months in 2019
- Year-to-date, the sector is down 10% compared to 2019
- The result, a 16% pull-back in construction work as a result of COVID-19.
ICBA’s current projections are that BC construction hours worked will be 10% lower in 2020 compared to 2019. Given that 2019 was one of construction’s busiest years ever, and that the broader economy has been crushed by the pandemic, this performance is a remarkably strong showing for construction – making it the envy of many other sectors who are seeing far larger reductions.
As our ICBA leadership team meets with members from across BC, we are picking up significant concerns that private sector tendering has slowed because of cash-strapped owners, uncertainty over how COVID-19 will play out, higher taxes, and ever-increasing government red tape. There is a lot of wait-and-see that is revealing itself in projects being postponed. As a result, ICBA sees the potential for another decline in construction volumes in 2021 compared to 2020.
The Conference Board of Canada’s analysis reflects ICBA’s caution about the outlook going forward. The Board projects BC housing starts to be 35,300 in 2020 and 38,000 in 2021 – a double-digit percentage drop from 45,000 in 2019.
Procore, the project management software company, used the first week of lockdown in mid-March as a statistical baseline and has been charting its BC users’ construction activity from there. Activity has been relatively steady at about 25% higher than the worst of the recession. This reinforces the idea that the first week of lockdown saw many BC construction sites pause to sort out proper COVID-19 safety protocols; but that pause was short (the COVID protocols, however, will be here until, hopefully, there is a vaccine). However, this rebound still leaves construction lagging behind its 2019 levels.
There is little doubt we will be in this recession for quite some time. We believe there will be a long tail on the negative impact of COVID-19; getting back to a more normal operating business climate will not be possible until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.
As we transition from this unprecedented sharp decline into what will be a slow economic recovery, now is the time for government to be bold – to issue RFPs and tenders for important construction projects which both spark the economy and create needed transportation, health, housing, and other infrastructure to support jobs, our competitiveness and improve our quality of life.
Municipal governments, with limited budgets and borrowing capabilities, should focus on speeding up approvals for private investment in their community, including new housing and businesses. Mayors and councils should aggressively cut red tape and find ways to get good projects going now. Complexity and confusion will cripple our return to a strong economy.
Cutting red tape, fast-tracking approvals and inspections, issuing permits, and quickly rolling out bold plans for building new infrastructure must guide the thinking at all levels of government over the coming months.
The BC Government needs to go a step further and abandon its shortsighted, 1970s-era tendering monopoly with the building trades unions and effectively directs work to just 15% of the construction workforce. Given that fully 85% of the men and women who work in construction in BC work for open shop companies, the provincial government must ensure that every BC construction contractor and every construction worker has a fair shot at capital projects.
The provincial government is swimming in debt – estimates for the 2020/21 budget deficit are as high as $15 billion, so every dollar is precious and must be stretched as far as possible in helping the economy recover. Government cannot continue to pay construction prices they have artificially inflated by chasing away open shop bidders, favouring building trades unions, adding layers of needless bureaucracy, and putting higher risk on to contractors.
These so-called “Community Benefit Agreements” also leave out 82% of trades apprentices in BC – the ones who work with open shop companies. Rather than giving younger workers more opportunities, this policy strips that away for the vast majority of apprentices.
Throughout this pandemic, we have heard from government and health officials that “we are all in this together.” The same holds true for the economic recovery – the provincial government needs to ensure we are all in the recovery together.
The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) and WorkSafeBC are pleased to announce the 2020 Gord Stewart Construction Workplace Health and Safety Innovation Award is now open for entries from eligible ICBA members and their employees.
About the Award
The Workplace Health and Safety Innovation Award is presented annually to acknowledge individuals and companies for their efforts in the prevention of workplace incidents, injuries and illnesses. By honouring safety leaders and sharing their ideas ICBA and WorkSafeBC hope to encourage new programs, policies, and projects that improve the health and safety of workers.
The award recognizes the employee or team of employees who come up with an innovative program, policy, tool or project that demonstrates a proven accomplishment in the area of health and safety for the construction industry sector.
There is a $5,000 prize for the best submission and will be presented in late 2020.
All employees of ICBA member companies are eligible for the Annual Awards for Innovation in Workplace Health and Safety for Construction.
The deadline to enter is 4:30PM, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
Construction contractors are problem solvers, and the economic carnage of the COVID-19 pandemic is Canada’s most pressing problem right now. In this inaugural issue of Merit Canada’s Construction InSites we talk about the role construction can play in helping Canada chart a path to economic renewal and revitalization.
Over one million men and women work in construction in Canada and the federal and provincial governments had already prioritized infrastructure investments well before the pandemic – and rightly so, since they deliver quick and effective economic stimulus and position us for long-term competitiveness. In the wake of the pandemic, infrastructure investment will be all the more important as we look for ways to create jobs and opportunities for all Canadians.
Contractors are also bottom-line focused, and know that every dollar needs to be stretched far. In this publication we lay out both the case for accelerated infrastructure investment, and the criteria that will ensure it delivers maximum value to the most communities and the greatest number of Canadians.
And on a cautionary note, we flag the threat of building trades union-only procurement, which as history had clearly demonstrated, badly weakens the impact of accelerated infrastructure funding, and freezes out the majority of the men and women in the construction sector.
We are all in the pandemic together, sacrificing so much, so it is important that we all share in the recovery and that no one is left out or left behind. Our past has taught us that the best and most durable solutions take shape when Canadians answer the call to work together and are unified in the face of adversity.
The BC Court of Appeal delivered its decisions in two ongoing battles ICBA has been leading against John Horgan’s NDP Government – one on proportional representation and one whether a court or the Labour Relations Board should hear contractors’ concerns on the NDP’s sweetheart deal with the Building Trades Unions.
During the proportional representation campaign in 2018, ICBA had filed for an injunction to pause the proportional representation referendum process because the question was unconstitutional. The John Horgan NDP Government dragged the process out for months in order to avoid addressing how it had stacked the deck for prop rep to be approved by voters. Eventually, the whole case ended up before the Court of Appeal earlier this year.
On Friday, the BC Court of Appeal ruled ICBA’s challenge “moot” as the referendum had long since concluded. The Court offered no discussion on whether the ICBA case had merits, simply that the issues raised were now irrelevant.
Horgan’s Attorney General David Eby, while successful in preventing the case to be heard before the vote, certainly was not successful in getting proportional representation through. ICBA was among the loudest voices fighting what The Globe and Mail called “Canada’s least honest attempt” at electoral reform.
The efforts of ICBA and many others resulted in a resounding, humiliating defeat for the Horgan NDP: 61.3% of British Columbians rejected proportional representation.
ICBA – along with several other construction and business associations, progressive unions, and companies – has been challenging NDP Transportation Minister Claire Trevena’s decision to discriminate against 85% of B.C.’s construction workforce by creating the NDP government’s so-called “Community Benefits Agreement” labour framework that forced every construction worker who wanted to work on a taxpayer funded infrastructure project built under a “CBA” to join a Building Trades unions.
Earlier this year, a BC Supreme Court judge ruled that the government-appointed Labour Relations Board should deal with the industry’s concerns. But ICBA’s legal team argued otherwise in an appeal heard in May: “There are no labour relations issues under the Labour Relations Code that need to be adjudicated,” lawyers argued. “The issue is solely whether the Minister reasonably exercised her statutory authority under the Transportation Act, which comes within the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts in our constitutional system.”
Unfortunately, on Friday, the BC Court of Appeal largely sided with the lower court and punted an issue we consider to be a fundamentally unjust and disturbing violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the government-appointed Labour Relations Board.
ICBA and our allies are simply asking for a fair shot at government-tendered work for our non-Building Trades members and the hundreds of thousands of men and women they employ. Fully 85% of BC’s workforce, and 82% of trades apprentices, have been excluded from working on these projects because of the union monopoly.
ICBA will continue its fight against this discriminatory, wrongheaded union monopoly, designed by the NDP Government to reward its long-time political donors and supporters in the Building Trades Unions.
- Details at https://icba.simplesignup.ca/en/6304/index.php?m=eventSummary
- All ICBA courses – icba.ca/courses
- Online, on-demand courses – icba.ca/online
- Webinars – icba.ca/webinars
Jordan and Maclean talk about the NDP’s poor handling of the opioid overdose crisis, a scathing report from the BC Ombudsperson, Erin O’Toole’s win, and much more.
Maclean and Jordan break down the federal shocker that Bill Morneau is out as Justin Trudeau’s finance minister, what comes next for the Trudeau government, the lack of help for the CFL, the tale of two BC pandemics, and how Andrew Wilkinson gets under John Horgan’s skin.
Fun couple of days for ICBA and our president Chris Gardner. Our friends at Lark Group poured the 8th floor of their CC3 building in Surrey – the same floor that will be our home in 2021!
Lark hoisted a desk and chair up there for Chris to try out, and it looks like a perfect fit. Thanks to ICBA life member (& Lark founder) Larry Fisher for making it happen… we can’t wait to move in! (Well, maybe we’d like a ceiling and some windows first 🤣)