No one enjoys restrictions on their lives or businesses. Just like no one likes to get sick. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us as individuals and communities in terms of what we find acceptable. And problems arise when the restrictions drag on for months and months, seemingly with little public input or participation in the process. But this is not how it needs to be.
Early on during the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, construction was largely deemed nonessential. It was baffling to us that Gov. Inslee made this decision when most other states, including California and Oregon, chose to keep construction open. Sometimes our industry has a bad reputation for safety, but that reputation is not backed by the numbers. For the last 3 years L&I has in fact lowered workers comp rates because on the whole we have kept our worksites safe.
The construction industry has also been a key part to our strong economy and tax base in recent years. Contributing over $24 billion to the state’s GDP annually, over $14 billion in annual wages, and $2.7 billion in sales tax revenue, we believed that remaining open would help mitigate the damage the pandemic is doing not only to our economy, but to the state budget.
Representatives of the Associated General Contractors called for an advisory committee to be formed, made up of trade and labor groups as well as state stakeholders, in order to directly address the best way for our industry to move forward safely. Lo and behold, a reasonable agreement was struck and the low-risk Phase 1 construction plan was quickly signed off on by the Governor’s Office.
Since that time Phase 2 guidelines opened all construction activities throughout the state. It has been no surprise that construction has remained safe. The industry has policed itself. Thousands of construction activities have resumed, with only two L&I citations or investigations continuing from non-compliance statewide through mid-June. Even in high-infection areas like Benton and Franklin counties, no construction site has been the source of a COVID-19 outbreak. When an inquiry to the Benton Franklin Health District was sent, the reply was not only that we weren’t the cause of outbreaks, but we were an industry that had been leading the way on COVID-19 safety.
What went into these plans? Social distancing, face covering, regular sanitation and employee training. There is nothing special about our plans. There is nothing another industry couldn’t replicate. What made the difference was industry participation. When private owners or representatives are able to participate in the process, there is less of a feeling that Olympia is picking winners and losers from the business community. Business owners and employees alike may be unhappy with the current situation, but these agreements become something they can live with.
As we look ahead, we must acknowledge that more businesses must be allowed to open to return to pre-COVID economic levels. We know that not everyone agrees, and certainly would encourage those most at risk to continue to practice the safest of behaviors. But with a budget shortfall forecast in the billions into the next biennium, Olympia must make drastic cuts or allow its revenue stream to get back to work. With no signs of a call for a special session on the horizon from the Governor’s Office, we must encourage the latter.
It is why we encourage Gov. Inslee to partner with business groups as he did with us. If we are all given a chance to participate, we believe we can find solutions that allow our public to remain healthy while conducting business.