Leading the Way: NUCA Chapters Navigate Uncharted Waters in the COVID Age

Local chapters are at the front lines of NUCA’s efforts in advancing the cause for utility contractors. The chapters across the county work at the grassroots level to support unique issues that affect contractors in their local region. In a time of uncertainty, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic that impacted worldwide commerce, we decided to poll a sampling of chapter executive directors to see how their members are being impacted and what steps they are taking.

Chapter executive directors participating in the survey are:

How has the pandemic impacted your state/region? What changes are you seeing as a result of the pandemic?

DC – Thankfully, all three jurisdictions that we represent – Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia – have deemed construction to be an essential activity, so our contractors have been busy throughout this time. Crews are required to take precautions – temperature checks in the morning, only 1 or 2 people per car/truck, mandatory masks and gloves, and personal distancing wherever possible and safe. While contractors are still busy, many meetings with local agencies and utilities are being conducted virtually. One difficulty being encountered is when a crew member tests positive for COVID-19, the whole crew is supposed to quarantine for up to 14 days, which can impact scheduling and logistics for multiple projects. The higher unemployment levels have benefited some of our members as well, as they have been able to fill open positions for laborers that have long gone unfilled.

NEBRASKA – As far as the pandemic affecting day-to-day operations around the state, the physical scope of the work has seen very little impact. However, the way contractors perform work has been impacted. Face masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing have forced crews to find new ways to perform their tasks.

There is some uncertainty about starting new projects. The owners are not putting out their projects that they planned to bid this summer and fall, out of precaution. Contractors are starting to catch up on their backlog. If that work doesn’t break soon, the market will get extremely competitive.

PENNSYLVANIA – Unlike many other states, in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf shut down the entire construction industry, be it utility, commercial or residential. All were told to shut down on Thursday, March 19, by 8:00 p.m. The governor gave no lead time to secure equipment and notify workers. Enforcement actions would begin Saturday under the State’s Emergency Declaration law. Jobsites had to be secured, workers had to be laid off immediately, new concrete pours had to cure for days or later be jackhammered out at tremendous costs, and the list goes on. Everyone was in panic mode! There was no warning, no advisory consults, no safety adjustment considerations – only a complete chaotic situation that no one was prepared for in such short notice.

The number one change is managing another safety issue, assigning a Safety Officer to ensure all COVID-19 safety guidelines are implemented and complied with to ensure the welfare of our employees and their families. These added protocols have slowed production and increased costs of projects.

SUCA – The pandemic has impacted our state like many others with a huge blow to our economy. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a State of Emergency for COVID-19 on March 9. All non-essential businesses were shut down soon after and it was recommended for people to only leave their home for essentials. Since then, we have reopened and are slowly getting back to work with new precautions and restrictions to ensure the health of our community. Many companies have added restrictions to social and networking activities, and all have regulations to control the spread. It will be a long road ahead until things feel somewhat “normal” again and we can socialize like we once did.

What are you hearing from your members? How are they impacted? What innovative measures have they taken?

DC – For the most part, our contractor members are very busy and thankful that they are busy. Because the contractor members are working, the materials suppliers are also being kept busy. The relationships between the contractors and suppliers are more important now than ever, because the contractors need to have suppliers they can trust to provide quality products even when the supply chain might be disrupted.

NEBRASKA – Many companies have implemented new protocols, such as no visitors into the building, and self-quarantining if employees choose to leave on vacation.

One of our contractor members also provides commercial service plumbing and drain cleaning. This has suffered a little bit when restaurants and businesses were closed, as the contractor could not service grease traps and clean commercial drains. The same contractor had a lot of school work lined up for this summer for utilities, and was able to get into those jobs early and complete them well ahead of schedule. Additionally, the contractor is doing a complete sewer replacement inside a grocery store. The project started just as everything was closing. Special procedures have been in place since the contractor’s employees are working around food. The employees wear masks and do all of the work at night.

PENNSYLVANIA – Projects are still being bid for now. Contractors are concerned that infrastructure funding will dry up without federal funding as local and state government tax revenues decline and projects are placed on hold until funding levels return to pre-COVID-19 dollars.

The PPP loans were an important resource to keep and retain skilled employees in the construction industry. Unemployment Compensation (UC) funding that exceeded an employee’s weekly salary had the potential to discourage employee retention. Some contractors had to use their PPP loans to offer incentives that exceeded the UC amount as a retention tool.

The innovative measures are those that probably will never be told, but the sheer fact that any business survives this pandemic is evidence innovation was involved. The innovation in various safety measures to keep employees and their families safe in a few short days was inspirational. The innovation of signage that “COVID-19 Safety Plans in Effect” and “Essential Business at Work” are two simple, but helpful messages for the public. Amazing voice-over PowerPoint presentations for employees on safety protocols were created. Pre-work screening questionnaires were created within various contractor software programs to discourage spreading of the virus to co-workers. New office safety protocols, shift rotations and COVID-19 Safety Officer responsibilities all required innovative measures.

SUCA – Our contractor members are busy. A lot of work has been pushed out for road and utility in the last five months due to our industry being deemed essential. Our associate members have had to get creative to keep the products coming to the contractors safely and efficiently. More and more suppliers are starting to work out of their homes and are working on the phone and email rather than face-to-face to ensure social distancing measures are followed. All members alike are facing new safety precautions in the office and on crews. Daily temperature checks on jobsites, face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are being stocked to help keep employees safe and healthy.

How are you responding as a local chapter? What impacts has it had on events? The way you communicate with members?

DC – In the beginning of the pandemic, when accurate information was critical to decision-making, NUCA of Metro DC researched all channels of information relevant to the utility contracting community and leveraged relationships with local governmental officials to gain insight on the directions of possible actions related to shut downs; then sent out updates as quickly as we could. Our members greatly appreciated the timely and comprehensive nature of our information updates. We acted to become a source of information that could be relied upon.
Unfortunately, we have had to cancel all of our events for the past four months, and expect the same for the foreseeable future. While Maryland and Virginia are in Phase 3 of re-opening, Washington, D.C., is still in Phase 2, making planning and holding any event quite uncertain. This is further complicated by the current rising numbers of cases and deaths in all three jurisdictions. While technically we could hold gatherings, most people with whom I have spoken are leery of actually attending any elective meeting or event, even though they are currently allowed. Further, with the local school systems now announcing that they are planning for a virtual-only beginning to the school year in August, there will be additional logistical challenges for any members with families.

Despite the current understandable cautions, we are hopeful that we will be able to hold our annual golf tournament in October, with appropriate personal-distancing and other personal safety rules in effect.

NEBRASKA – NUCA of Nebraska sent a letter to Gov. Pete Ricketts, requesting that he would exempt all heavy/civil and underground utility construction in Nebraska from a shut-down order, and allow NUCA of Nebraska members to continue to work as they are able. There has not been any shutdown.

One of our associate members is a law firm and presented a webinar “COVID-19 and Employment Law: Preventative Approaches to Adopt, Concerns for Employers and Legislative Changes.” They provided a “COVID-19 Employers Best Practices” and “A Contractor’s Guide to COVID-19” resources. Our association set up a COVID-19 web page with resources for our members. We’ve shared information via email, including access to personal protective equipment (PPE) such as K95 masks, protective barriers, gloves and hand sanitizers.

We’ve hosted board and committee meetings on Zoom, rather than face-to-face meetings. We had planned to schedule in-person interviews with candidates running for state legislature, but are hosting them through Zoom. This is the beginning of building relationships with future state lawmakers, as we educate them about the underground utility construction industry and issues impacting our members.

NUCA of Nebraska is currently planning to host our Annual Clay Shoot on Sept. 10 and we postponed our Golf Tournament to Oct. 9. We follow CDC guidelines and the directives of our governor and local public health departments where the events will be held. We are tentatively planning a holiday event in December.

PENNSYLVANIA – As a local chapter, NUCA of Pennsylvania contacted fellow construction associations and sent a joint letter to the governor’s office seeking the designation as “essential” businesses under the federal guidelines. Pennsylvania chose to use the previous year’s guidelines that excluded construction as essential.

NUCA of Pennsylvania followed daily briefings and informed the membership daily of the latest news before it was reported in the media. Pennsylvania offered waivers and NUCA of Pennsylvania educated our members on the application process and suggested verbiage based on successful waiver submissions. The waiver process was another fascio as waiver approvals were hit-or-miss. NUCA of Pennsylvania researched NAICS codes and found that workers in support of utilities were essential. With this argument, NUCA of Pennsylvania acquired an industry-wide exemption where all utility construction work was deemed essential within two weeks of the shutdown. Hour-by-hour information was valuable and NUCA of Pennsylvania rose to the challenge with the help of our many construction law firms who formed working COVID-19 groups to address the various legal issues now facing the construction industry. We worked closely with NUCA National to post updated information to the COVVID-19 resource webpage, a one-stop shop for any contractor across the U.S. The sharing of information with our fellow construction associations was another key to our successful delivery of service to the statewide construction industry. Some contractors shared safety plans, educational material, waiver language, signage suggestions, and so much more. It was a masterpiece completed by all who gave time, energy and insight to rise to the occasion.

At first, the impact on events was merely postponing events until fall. We are continuing to hold our summer golf outing, but the spring outing was canceled. Our Legislative Day may be held as virtual visits, which we still hope will have a positive impact on our legislative issues.

We had been using VPN service for well over 18 years, but within the past year we started using NUCA’s Webex service. Last year, we held a Webex virtual board meeting for those board members who were unable to attend the meeting in person. Our Webex experience made it easy for us to communicate webinar materials and information to our members. The bulk of our communication was via our Constant Contact newsletter along with forwarded emails from various member legal firms. The value of Microsoft TEAMS only now has really been accentuated as an association communication tool. The value is there for contractors as well, but the learning process is just beginning. The elimination of excess junk mail is the untold secret to Microsoft TEAMS. Expect to see a rise in the use of this great tool.

SUCA – The pandemic has forced our chapter to think outside the box. Typically, we have an event, roundtable luncheon, dinner meeting or social every month. With an extremely active chapter and being one of the oldest at 45 years, we have a lot of traditions. It was a shock to our members and our board when all at once what we have traditionally done was no longer a possibility. It took a little adjustment and discomfort to try to move forward following all the new rules and guidelines provided by the CDC. Since March we have rescheduled numerous events, cancelled a few for the year and are looking into new ways to drive income for the association. In addition to the loss of income, we now face the challenge of involvement without monthly gatherings. We immediately purchased a virtual conference platform and have started holding our board meetings virtually. We have also held virtual webinars for our members on topics of safety and training. We send out information weekly to our members via Constant Contact and have started utilizing our social media platforms more to keep our members engaged and up to date. Our main focus lately has been education, whether it be crew safety, legislation or PPP loan programs our members would find beneficial. We are feeding them with all the knowledge we have access to from our local, state and national organization.

What is the general state of utility construction in your state? What are the biggest issues you are facing?

DC – The issues that we are facing are the ones that we have faced for many years and not unique to the pandemic, including but not limited to – payment delays, retention complications, inspection inconsistencies.

NEBRASKA – Jobs for the most part are on schedule, and our state’s vital infrastructure is being installed and commissioned for service. Up to this point, it has been business as usual. There is concern of what the looming results will be from the pandemic. In the private sector, there are a lot of private owners and developers putting jobs on hold or canceling all together. There is uncertainty about the future, challenges when courthouses were closed so our members were unable to obtain permits, and challenges with right-of-way agreements and easements. Our industry will adapt and change focus as needed.

There are opportunities to educate high school students about career opportunities in the construction industry, and show how our industry is essential during the pandemic. Employees are earning a steady paycheck during the lockdowns.

Another issue that could come up is our supply chains. Factories all had inventory prior to COVID-19, but it is being rapidly depleted. The lull and actual catch-up time is one more uncertainty we hope can be avoided, but is on the radar as a very real possibility.

The ability of utility companies performing locates on time through the Nebraska One Call (811) notification system has greatly impacted our projects. The industry has been doing its best to allow for the most upfront communication and lead time possible; however, the tickets are still unfortunately not being completed on time in many cases. All of this depends on geographic location in the state, but the contractors and locators are doing their best to work together.

Now that businesses are reopening, there is an up-tick in demand for products and supplies that our NUCA associate members provide. This is good because we have been stressing how important it is to keep not only our employees safe, but also their families. As hard as everyone works to keeps jobs moving, the home life always plays into their worries. On-the-job safety is essential. This is a very challenging and unsettling time for all involved.

PENNSYLVANIA – Many of the upcoming projects were already nearing the end of the design stage. The question is: will there be funding for these projects and will there be future projects to bring into the design stage? Clearly the additional safety protocols have slowed the production time, so will we see delay claims that could discourage future projects due to increased costs? Even if a contractor wins a bid, will timely payments follow? Funding from the federal government is the key to projects progressing and preserving jobs and our economy. That funding cannot be tied to language that creates unfair competition and restricts the number of bidders.
Our biggest issues are now continued safeguarding of our employees and their families, liability lawsuits, properly filing for PPP forgiveness, and ensuring the supply chain is available should another shut down occur.

SUCA – For the most part the utility construction industry is thriving. There was a minor dip in residential construction, but it has since picked back up, and commercial construction has increased. Some of the biggest struggles involve keeping employees safe and learning to adapt to the new procedures for PPE and COVID guidelines with their crew members. If one team member shows symptoms, it can cause the shut-down of an entire crew and wreak havoc on schedule and overall costs. Florida is extremely hot this time of year and construction is labor intensive work, therefore temperature checks can be skewed easily. Also, many companies have their office employees working from home and have had to purchase virtual platforms and increase their IT capabilities within their networks to handle these changes.

What are your feelings about the future of the market? Bearish? Bullish? Why?

DC – We are optimistic about the future in our area. Although some projects have had to be put on hold, many others have gone forward, and even accelerated their timing. There is a lot of infrastructure construction and rehabilitation going on in our area, despite the pandemic, and our members are working to take advantage of that. We are optimistic that the commitment of Congress to invest in infrastructure will yield even more projects that can keep our members working hard.

PENNSYLVANIA – There are so many variables currently that it is nearly impossible to predict the future market. It is better to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.

EDITOR’S NOTE: NUCA has a list of pandemic resources and up-to-date information available for members on its website at https://www.nuca.com/panflu.

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