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Choate Construction Addresses Worker Concerns at App State Construction Site; More Workers Come Forward to Speak About COVID-19 Worries

The student housing project, building 100 and building 200 on Stadium Drive, is where the subcontractors have been working. Numerous subcontractors have been affected by the spread of the virus.

By Nathan Ham

Choate Construction Company, the general contractor in charge of the new student housing project under construction at Appalachian State University, spoke to the High Country Press on Friday afternoon after our previous story on workers concerned about spreading COVID-19 appeared on Wednesday.

Mike Hampton, the Chief Administrative Officer at Choate Construction, said he feels like the company is doing everything they can to educate workers and keep the building site clean.

“We hired a company that has done three deep cleanings for us using this process called Shockwave. It’s basically a fog that permeates everything and adheres to surfaces,” said Hampton. “We’ve bought the product and two of the applicators so at 3 a.m. every night we are now doing it ourselves.”

In response to the concerns about subcontractors losing their jobs, Hampton says he can only speak for Choate Construction employees.

“No Choate person has missed a paycheck, whether they are hourly or salary, if their job was shut down or if they were at home waiting on test results. We have continued to pay them. Choate is not putting people out of work. We have kept everybody that we can working,” he said. “I would think that all or a vast majority of our subcontractors would qualify for the Paycheck Protection Plan and I would have hoped they would go out and secure loans. I feel for people that are hurting financially and are out of work. We were lucky that we were able to keep a lot of our workers working because the governor did not shut down construction in our state.”

According to Hampton, all employees at the job site have their temperatures taken before they enter the work area and there are numerous posters hanging around the job site with details from the CDC on the proper ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, social distancing requirements, hand washing and hand sanitizing and wearing masks. He says Choate Construction has been commended several times for their proactive efforts to keep workers up to date on the latest information from the CDC.

In a June 1 memo from Craig Cartrett, a Project Executive with Choate Construction Company, he highlighted numerous issues that had been brought to the management’s attention. The memo asked all contractors and subcontractors to address issues such as to remain committed to educating employees of the COVID-19 guidelines away from work, pointing out that their potential exposure from the weekend could be brought back to the site, discourage carpooling or ensure that they are remaining their social distance, including no more than two people per care and also out of town living arrangements discouraging multiple employees living together and reminding subcontractors that they should not rent trailers or apartments and have multiple employees living together.

Fountain Electric, headquartered in Hickory and one of the subcontractors involved in the student housing project, spoke at length about what they have seen on the job site and how they are dealing with the continued new cases of the coronavirus among employees.

“It’s something that is a great concern to all of us. It’s a joint effort, not only with Choate, but all of the other trades on the job to do what we can. There are measures that everyone can and has taken that are preventative in order to try and prevent stuff going on such as this, but unfortunately, now we find ourselves moving past the proactive measures to the reactive measures once you have actual positive cases on a job site,” said David Lloyd, Human Resources Manager with Fountain Electric.

Lloyd says that his company has been issuing proper safety guidelines to its workers since early March, which include staying out of work if a person feels sick, wearing cloth face coverings, using social distancing measures whenever possible, and wiping down tools and equipment.

“That’s something that we have all been doing and continuing to do, and finding ways to improve. That is a team effort with us and any general contractor, whether it is this job or any other job,” said Lloyd. “It changes day to day with the things we can do, should do, and the things we can do better. At the end of the day, it’s about addressing the situation once it has occurred, which is where we are now.”

As for how Fountain Electric has been able to make sure their workers have been able to maintain a paycheck during this time, the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act has made that a requirement, according to Lloyd.

“Since April 1, we have been subject to the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, which means we are required to provide paid sick leave to anyone subject to quarantine, anyone who is experiencing symptoms and anyone who is seeking testing. We offer that to any employee who is removed from the job or meets any of those categories. That has been the mandate for everybody,” he said.

Now that the positive cases continue to add up, workers and their immediate contacts must be quickly determined.

“Contact tracing is always problematic because, at the end of the day, you are always relying on some guy’s memory. You have someone that gets sick or tests positive, you are then on the phone with that person to determine who they worked with, what crew they were with and what part of the building they were working in. The bottom line for us is holding guys out of work until we are satisfied that they are not infected or at risk of spreading the virus to anyone else,” explained Lloyd.

A statement from the university said “The university continues working closely with public health and values this relationship, which has allowed for increased testing at construction sites, consistent and transparent reporting to the university and Boone communities, and coordinated public health education measures.

Some key outcomes of this partnership include:

  • AppHealthCare and App State have partnered together with all construction contractors working at the university to conduct broader testing at worksites, including those that have not experienced a positive case to date.
  • The university is implementing enhanced precautionary measures with employees who are on campus as well as with subcontracted workers, which include wearing face coverings, maintaining appropriate physical distance and reviewing North Carolina Governor’s Executive Orders 131 and 135, which require all individuals to wear face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of distance in public areas or work centers.
  • AppHealthCare and App State are partnering on a public health campaign for members of the university community, which will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
  • Our partnership with AppHealthCare also helps verify tests that may have been performed in other counties. As we hear of self-reported cases that are not being tested by AppHealthCare or App State, we are coordinating with local public health agencies to the greatest extent possible, in consultation with the North Carolina Division of Public Health Communicable Disease team. 

Other Workers Speak Out

After the first story reporting the working conditions on campus, more workers from several different subcontractors came forward Thursday and Friday to speak on what they have experienced. The workers spoke to us anonymously in fear of possible retribution from their employers.

One worker said that he was working next to a guy last Friday that had already tested positive.

“If he was already sick, why didn’t they (Choate Construction) inform anybody? There were no emails from Choate saying that period,” the worker said.

Another worker said that some workers have approached management about feeling ill, but that they are telling the workers that if they’re not running a fever then there is no point in getting tested.

All the workers that have spoken to us so far have agreed that staying safe and healthy is the most important thing.

“It’s all about the health and safety of our families. It’s about coming out here and working safely and returning home to our family. If there is something out here unseen and we don’t know what it is, that’s a whole different ballgame,” one worker summed it up for everyone else.

Other workers were more upset about the whole situation.

“I don’t feel like we have been kept up to date or told the truth about what is happening here. I’m not sure we can trust the testing that has been given by some of the company people that have been brought in,” one man said. “I’ve been tested several times with negative results and have spent time with my family. I just recently started not feeling well and now one of my children is not feeling well, and now this last test came back positive. This job needs to start thinking about us and not just the deadlines they are facing.”

He said he feels that there are still people on site not feeling well and even someone he knows that has tested positive but still working.

“I think they tried their best to keep this thing from our job site, but it is obviously here now and I still don’t think this is being taken seriously enough. It’s scary!”

One more worker was frustrated with the working conditions and doesn’t feel like the general contractor is concerned enough about their health.

“State of North Carolina law says 100 people per job site, yet there are 274 people here. My biggest thing is we have been here for months and told lie after lie after lie. I’ve got several guys but only six working today because the rest are sick,” he said. “I think this job site needs to be closed down. Choate wouldn’t get their $100,000 bonus to divide between eight of them, but I don’t really care about that bonus or about their paychecks. It’s not about paychecks; it’s about the safety of lives. It’s about the safety of our people.”

Lloyd, the HR Manager at Fountain Electric, said that he has been on the job site multiple times and understands the concerns.

“We encourage employees that have concerns to raise those concerns with us. We are sympathetic to employees who say they are worried, concerned, or fearful, and in each instance, depending on the employee’s situation, we try to talk through it with them. The main thing we can do is provide them the best guidance that we have that we are getting from the labor department and the CDC,” he said.

Hampton with Choate Construction feels like they have a good handle on the situation on App State’s campus.

“We don’t believe it is transmitted on the job site anymore, but there’s no way of knowing. We don’t feel that the fact that there are a lot of positive (tests) on our job is indicative that it is being transferred within the job,” he said.

AppHealthCare Responds to Worker Concerns

AppHealthCare, the health department responsible for collecting data on COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Watauga, Ashe, and Alleghany counties, unfortunately, has limited regulatory authority when it comes to inspecting construction sites.

“However, like any location, when we are asked for guidance, we provide it, and in this case, we were asked. What we do in a case like this is investigate, offer broader testing in an effort to identify those who may be positive, and are unaware and make sure close contacts are quarantined. This is why you have heard about us conducting targeted mass testing. We have provided guidance across our district for various employers who have faced this challenge,” said Melissa Bracey, the Director of Communication & Compliance with AppHealthCare.

The health department did confirm 36 total cases that have been identified from their proactive testing of workers.

Bracey said the health department also has no regulatory authority over portable toilets and how often they are cleaned or replaced. “We realize the need for accessible, clean toilet facilities for all workers. We strongly recommend frequent cleaning of facilities per CDC and NC DHHS guidance.”

According to AppHealthCare, there is no regulation that they are aware of that limits the numbers of employees at a construction site and that a reason for the sudden increase in the number of positive COVID-19 tests was the encouragement of all subcontractors to come and get tested.

A worker losing his or her job is seemingly one of the biggest fears in the construction industry, particularly when many are living paycheck to paycheck. According to Bracey, AppHealthCare does take anonymous complaints from individuals and will pass those concerns on to the appropriate agency or organization.

“We certainly understand the concern of individuals feeling they may lose their job if they have to take time off due to this virus. It is important that employees of any organization are supported and are given the ability to take time off if they are sick without fear of job loss,” said Bracey. “We recognize there are people and families behind the numbers and data we see related to this virus and it’s important we do not lose sight of that. We want to be a resource to the community and recognize this is a very challenging time for a lot of people. Employers can make a big difference by helping make sure their employees aren’t facing job loss because they get sick or have to quarantine. We realize this is a difficult time for both businesses and frontline workers. It presents the need for more policies in our country that support all workers having access to sick leave.”

Being able to properly social distance, maintain proper hand washing and sanitizing, and wearing a face-covering remain the most important message for workers and the public. While it may be more difficult to work with those three things in mind on a large construction project, AppHealthCare has some additional recommendations to make it a bit easier.

“Staying well hydrated and taking more frequent breaks when wearing a mask while still maintaining six feet of distance or more from others can help. Hand washing stations are important, but having hand sanitizer provided is also acceptable. Employers can also stagger work schedules whenever possible, and provide ways for employees to give feedback about their working conditions or concerns,” Bracey explained. “We do realize this is a challenge in some environments. We can help businesses think through their prevention protocols and actively educate their staff. Unfortunately, we know this virus can hide when people are positive and do not have any symptoms. I hope the broader community understands both the challenges and opportunities we have before us and when we can work together and concentrate testing in this way, we may find additional cases –and that is a positive outcome.”