Vaccine hesitancy is disproportionately high in the construction industry. Here’s how that’s affected bottom lines.
Some construction sites early last year were forced to shut down as the coronavirus first took hold across the U.S. Many other projects pushed ahead, only shutting down for a couple of days in the very beginning before restarting with new health and safety protocols in place.
Whether a site remained active or not largely came down to local government mandates. And while the days of closed construction sites appear to be in the rearview mirror, the construction industry is facing another pandemic-related challenge in 2021: widespread vaccine hesitancy among its workforce.
A study this spring by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh found vaccine hesitancy was one of the highest among people working in construction, oil and gas extraction, or mining construction and extraction, at 46.4%. That’s compared to 9.6% of those in life, physical and social sciences, among the lowest by occupation.
Those in high-hesitancy occupations more often reported a lack of trust in the Covid-19 vaccine and the government, disbelief about the need for the vaccine, and a dislike of vaccines in general, according to researchers involved in that study.
Although the construction industry has revamped health-and-safety protocols since the pandemic, implementing new policies to tamp down potential spread of the virus, it’s frequently difficult to achieve, say, social distancing for many construction-related activities. A job site can also employ hundreds of workers at one time.
A University of Texas study last year found construction workers were five times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than workers in other industries. The study looked at hospitalization data in Austin, Texas from mid-March to mid-August 2020, before vaccines were available.
The Associated General Contractors of America, working with software company Autodesk Inc., recently released its annual survey on construction workforce — the challenges that continue to keep the industry scrambling for workers. While it didn’t cover vaccines specifically, the organization and member firms say vaccines are having an impact on their day-to-day business.
Chris Carson, president and CEO of Carson-Mitchell Inc. of Springfield, Missouri, said in an AGC panel discussion last week that his company does most of its work in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Some of the biggest construction projects in those markets, more rural in nature, are hospital complexes.
Carson said most area hospitals have vaccination requirements for people working on site — that includes construction workers.
“We have resistance from some of our employees to get vaccinated,” Carson said. “It cuts down on our ability to do those kinds of (jobs) when they are mandating that vendors are vaccinated. We’re seeing the resistance of vaccination hit the bottom line of that business.”
Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the AGC, said in those situations, general contractors are frequently put in a position to act as a health monitor of sorts for their staff and subcontractors on vaccination status.
“I think it’s important to understand that challenge a general contractor faces when these mandates are imposed,” Sandherr continued.
The AGC has a Covid-19 vaccine toolkit available for members, which delves into how to encourage and educate workers about the vaccine’s safety as well as regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But many general contractors say they won’t be requiring proof of vaccination among their workforce. The AGC’s recommendation is also to encourage, not require, vaccines.
Brett Strassel, vice president of commercial-division operations at Hedrick Brothers Construction Co. in West Palm Beach, Florida, said the company won’t be making vaccines mandatory but will continue to follow guidance from the CDC, OSHA and the AGC.
In Florida, where construction continues to boom, Strassel said he hasn’t seen many vaccine mandates for construction workers from project owners.
Carson said one of the biggest motivators that has gotten some — but not all — vaccine-hesitant workers to get the shot has been the threat of missing a paycheck, possibly two, if that person contracts Covid-19.
“That has changed a few minds,” Carson said. “But our partners have started to push their members to get on board. That should bear some fruit over the next few months.”
Strassel said in central and south Florida, where Hedrick Brothers is most active, there’s so much construction work available that even if a worker who contracts Covid-19 misses a few paychecks, there’s ample opportunity to recoup that later.
Vaccine hesitancy among construction workers is sure to be another wrinkle in the labor challenges the construction industry has been grappling with for years.
The AGC and Autodesk survey found about 90% of firms that employ hourly craft workers had at least one unfilled craft position, while 62% had openings for salaried professionals. Those numbers are up from one year ago, when there were openings among 76% of firms for hourly craft workers and 42% for salaried professionals.