When word circulated on Wednesday that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was ordering businesses in the state to scale back their workforces, construction workers at the Vassar Brothers Medical Center extension thought, hopefully, the order might also apply to them.
Phones pinged with texts from wives excited that their husbands could return home from the half-billion-dollar work site, where an eight-level patient pavilion is going up. When completed, the facility will have 264 patient rooms, 30 intensive care rooms, a dozen surgical suites, and a 66-room emergency department. It’s one of the largest construction projects ever in the City of Poughkeepsie.
As New York has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, Albany has imposed ever-tighter restrictions on individuals and businesses. By Friday, the governor had ordered all nonessential businesses completely shuttered. But the state’s construction industry is not subject to these restrictions, which leaves hundreds of workers beavering away, often in close quarters, in a single large building going up along the banks of the Hudson River.
Within an hour of Cuomo’s first announcement on Wednesday, representatives from the general contractors on the Vassar Brothers project fanned out across the 720,000-square-foot building to tell workers that the order did not apply to construction—certainly not an essential project like this one, which will roughly double the capacity of the Vassar Brothers Medical Center—so please get back to work.
Vassar Brothers is the flagship of Nuvance Health’s seven-hospital network in the Hudson Valley, and it has been a keystone institution in Poughkeepsie since 1887. The medical center employs about 2,200 workers, including many hundreds of doctors and nurses, and pumps close to a billion dollars into the local economy. The new wing is the latest in a series of major renovations aimed to consolidate its leading role in the healthcare industry of the Mid-Hudson Valley: In addition to the increased treatment capacity, it will have a conference center and will serve as a key site for a medical school being developed with Marist College. The expansion is a joint venture between Chicago-based Walsh Construction Group and Consigli Construction of Milford, Massachusetts. It was first announced in September 2016 and was originally planned to be completed last year.
An Ironic “Incubator”?
To say the workers were disappointed that they had to stay on the job understates their reaction; in interviews with several subcontractors, the prevailing opinion seems to be that construction, like most businesses, should be shuttered, at least temporarily, to allow testing for the novel coronavirus.
Several referred to the Vassar Brothers site as a giant “incubator,” spreading the virus via workers commuting from New York City, Westchester, Albany, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The situation is tragically ironic, since a portion of the new hospital wing has been designated to absorb the expected overflow of coronavirus patients.
“Nobody wants to leave work, nobody wants to be the wussy,” says one worker, who has been on the job for two years and who didn’t want to use his name for fear of reprisal. “We’ve been doing this our whole lives, but they are ignoring all the warnings. They really ought to shut this place down.”
Instead, he adds, the attitude of Walsh, a fourth-generation, family-owned business, seems to be that they will worry about it only when someone gets sick. But by then, “it’s too late, because we’ve all been working together six or seven days a week.”
Multiply this many times over: Crews from dozens of companies riding cramped elevators, and 100 or more workers on a floor with almost no ventilation, all congregating in the same room for lunch, until very recently all at the same time. The concern is palpable.
“It’s the main topic, every day, and it’s the consensus that this place should be shut down, at least temporarily,” says one member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), speaking in a nearby parking lot at the end of his shift.
Construction sites are invariably dusty and dirty, but conditions here are described as worse than normal, because there is virtually no ventilation, especially since sealed, unmovable windows were installed this past fall. Nor are there any industrial-sized air filters or air scrubbers, which are often utilized in such sites. Dust masks are scarce, and efforts to suppress dust have failed, because crews are virtually working on top of each other, rather than in a more orderly sequence, in a mad rush to try to finish the hospital wing, workers say.
“It’s just impossible—there’s just too much dust, too much stuff around, and then you’ve got sick people walking around, coughing all over the place, people chewing and spitting on the floor, people peeing in bottles, leaving them on the job site everywhere,” says a separate union worker, who says he has fallen ill more often on this job than on any other in his nearly 25 years in his craft. “It’s kind of typical construction-work stuff, but there’s just so much off it because there’s so many guys.”
The Other Guys
Workers on site understand the pressing needs of their labor. Between confirmed and suspected cases, there are already some three-dozen coronavirus patients at the Vassar Brothers hospital next door. But they argue that since the area of the expansion that will be used as a quarantine area will be finished soon, there is not the same urgency to complete the rest of the new wing, which is already a year behind schedule and at least six more months away from being ready.
“There is a lot more that Walsh could have been doing for us, like checking workers for fevers as they show up for work,” says the IBEW electrician. “But at this point, we really want this shut down so we can all get tested.”
That request seems to be in accordance with the increasing restrictions Governor Cuomo has imposed on businesses in the state, not to mention stricter measures adopted elsewhere. In Boston, for instance, Mayor Marty Walsh halted all construction projects for at least two weeks starting last Tuesday, even while noting that “construction is at the core of our economy.” On that day, the city had 33 confirmed coronavirus cases, and there were fewer than 200 in all of Massachusetts. By contrast, construction continues in New York, which had more than 10,000 confirmed cases as of Saturday afternoon.
The discrepancies leave workers feeling even more sacrificial, repeatedly ignored by the contractor’s safety monitors, with their union representatives oddly disconnected.
Anthony Speziale, the Hudson Valley representative of Painters Local 155 (DC9), says that while “everything seems to be going well” based on his regular site visits, workers could always stay home if they felt uncomfortable with working conditions.
But workers say staying home is a last resort. Walking off the job makes it less likely they would be called up for the next big job, and it gives them no chance of collecting unemployment benefits. Sick days are available, but workers expect adequate testing will take a while.
The IBEW electrician says that while national-level union representatives tend to take this line—that workers are free to walk—local bosses quietly push them to get on with the job, and that meetings with the general contractor have not resulted in any significant changes. Lunches are now staggered in half-hour intervals, but many workers are dispersing to eat far apart from one another.
Other union representatives push back on the claims of poor working conditions and maintain that they have not heard of such complaints.
There is also a proud defiance that construction workers are a special breed.
IBEW Local 363 union boss Samuel Fratto insists that pressing on at Vassar was the “patriotic thing to do at the moment,” adding that construction workers “do not have the luxury of everyone else that when a national emergency comes that we can all go home and never come out until the other guy fixes it, because we are the other guy.”
Repeated calls to the cell phone of Walsh/Consigli’s lead superintendent, James Major, were not returned. Neither were calls to Walsh’s regional office or Chicago headquarters.
At Vassar Brothers, Joseph Mullany, president of the hospital since January, rebuffed questions, but media representatives from Nuvance Health say the construction is an important part of boosting their surge capacity.
Meanwhile, the workers are left in dangerous limbo. “We’re just going day by day,” says the electrician, “waiting for which one will finally do the right thing: Walsh, the hospital, or the governor.”
Ken Stier, a business writer, lived and reported from abroad from Asia, the Caucasus, and Latin America for more than a dozen years. He previously worked for CNBC.com, and has written for Time, The New York Times, and Newsweek. He lives in Poughkeepsie.