By Joel Bouchey
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, seeming 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. Jay Inslee made this decision when most other states, including California and Oregon, chose to allow construction.
Sometimes our industry has a bad reputation for safety, but that reputation is not backed by the numbers. For the last three years the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has lowered workers compensation rates because on the whole we have kept our work sites safe.
The construction industry also has been a key part to our strong economy and tax base in recent years. Contributing more than $24 billion to the state’s gross domestic product annually, more than $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 was doing not only to our economy, but to the state budget.
Last spring, representatives of the Associated General Contractors called to form an advisory committee made up of trade and labor groups as well as state stakeholders 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 by the governor’s office.
Since that time Phase 2 guidelines opened all construction activities throughout the state.
It has been no surprise to us that the result was that construction has remained safe.
The industry has policed itself. Thousands of construction activities have resumed since the initial order, with only two Labor and Industries citation or investigations continuing from non-compliance statewide through mid-June.
Even in high-infection areas such as Benton and Franklin counties, no construction site has been the source of a Covid-19 outbreak.
In fact, 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 can become something they can live with.
As we look ahead at the state of our state, we must acknowledge that more businesses must be allowed to open if we are to be able 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 forecasted 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 for a call for a special legislative session on the horizon, 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.
Joel Bouchey is regional coordinator for the Inland Northwest chapter of The Associated General Contractors of America. He is based in Kennewick.
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