YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Greater emphasis on hygiene, daily health checks and encouraging sick workers to stay home are just some of the changes that electrical contractors expect to remain in place even as the coronavirus pandemic ebbs.
Electrical contractors say they look forward to business getting back to normal – or at least closer to normal – as orders to shelter in place and restrict economic activity in Ohio and Pennsylvania ease.
“We’re actually pretty busy and we’re ramping up manpower,” reports the marketing manager for VEC Electric in Girard, Becky Bertuzzi. The company is bidding for additional jobs as well, she says.
Bertuzzi says VEC had only two in-state projects affected by Ohio’s stay-at-home order, while work on out-of-state projects continued. Crews adhere to any work practices in effect in the states where the projects are.
The recommended distancing of six feet is “pretty simple” to comply with on some projects, she says. In addition, workers aren’t gathering for lunch breaks or meeting in large groups on site, and most office employees are working remotely.
“We’re using video conferencing as much as we can,” Bertuzzi says. “No one is actually meeting in person.”
About 70% of the workforce at Joe Dickey Electric in North Lima was working as of late April, reports its president, Eric Carlson. In addition to the TJX Companies Inc.’s HomeGoods regional distribution center in Lordstown, crews are working on some projects that are part of essential services, along with responding to service calls at essential businesses and emergency residential calls.
Carlson anticipates additional work as restrictions on activity are relaxed. “Things are starting to loosen up a little bit,” he says.
Several measures have been taken already. Electricians travel one person per vehicle to jobsites, and they’re taking breaks in their vehicles rather than in the trailer onsite. Extra restrooms and way stations are being installed at the sites, where bags filled with hand sanitizer, disinfectant, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment have been distributed.
“We’re absolutely making the best effort we can,” Carlson says.
About 80% of Enertech Electrical Inc.’s business is in public works, so many of its projects remained active during the shutdowns, says Dominic Donofrio, the Lowellville contractor’s business development manager.
At the same time, while general service work was down, emergency service was up. “As a company, we’ve offered some relief discounts to help those companies that are struggling through this,” Donofrio says.
Even as its services remain in demand, Enertech granted voluntary layoffs to its workforce as some projects stopped; they went on unemployment. Some of the younger electricians had asked to be with their spouses who had been laid off so they could help out at their homes “if there wasn’t a ton of work,” Donofrio says, and those doing so were guaranteed their jobs.
“It helped their families feel safe,” he says. Most have already returned to work.
Workers at jobsites are following the state guidelines with social distancing, upgraded hygiene practices and health and wellness screenings observed and used protective gear. Many office staff are working strictly from home, while those coming in are working alternate shifts.
“We’re following everything to the ‘T,’ ” Donofrio says. “We want to make sure that our people are safe because without them we don’t have a business.”
A substantial amount of work at Tri-Area Electric Co.’s work was curtailed when Gov. Mike DeWine issued his stay-at-home order and the company is running at about 20% of its capacity, according to Michael Johnson, chief estimator and project manager for the Youngstown contractor. The office is closed, with office staff operating on a “skeleton crew” and coming in as needed on alternate days.
“We were running full speed when this stuff happened. It’s our hope that we can hit the ground running,” Johnson says, when business ramps up.
Paused projects included work at Akron Children’s Hospital and a couple of PNC Bank branches. Sites where work continued include the new event center at the Eastwood Mall in Niles and an elementary school in Steubenville.
“We’ve had a pretty brisk amount of service work during this time as well,” Johnson says, as well as projects to bid.
He points out that electricians are used to wearing personal protective equipment. “We’ve been wearing hardhats and glasses and steel-toed shoes,” he says. “To add a facemask to that PPE kit is not a far stretch.”
Gulu Electrical Contractors is running at 85% of its capacity, estimates its director of human resources, Kathy Gulu. The Youngstown company mainly does large congregate living projects, such as student housing and assisted living centers.
The general contractors on two of the projects shut down work but Gulu expects both to be reactivated soon. In the meantime, service work has been quiet, she adds.
“Customers are feeling uneasy. They don’t want somebody in their house right now,” she says.
Gulu conducts regular conference calls with project foremen to discuss current guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. “It took me quite a long time to get PPE for all of our jobsites,” she says. Thermometers are at every jobsite and at the office, where social distancing is in place.
The size of work crews has been narrowed, Gulu says. What was a job with 10 electricians has been scaled back to five. In addition, all vehicles are equipped with hand sanitizer, and electricians travel one per vehicle.
In Pennsylvania, electrical contractors are “somewhat back to business, slowly and surely,” says Justin Bruce, executive vice president of New Castle-based Bruce & Merrilees.
The company had been performing work for customers whose businesses had been deemed essential, while a large percentage of business sectors in Pennsylvania had been shut down, Bruce says.
Bruce & Merrilees has work in several states – including Indiana, Maryland and West Virginia – where construction had been deemed essential from the beginning of their business shutdowns, he says. Construction is permitted again on Pennsylvania projects.
Even so, man-hours for Bruce & Merrilees are down about 35% during the pandemic.
The company has effected “all new procedures” to ensure that workers are coming in healthy, Bruce says. They are required to perform a daily self-check to ensure they are not coming to work ill, and Bruce expects some work sites will be requiring temperature checks. Some office personnel will be brought back but he expects most to continue to work remotely.
For out-of-town stays, each person gets his own room, where previously two would have shared one. Rooms are booked for seven days to ensure no one else is using them
“Our team has responded exceptionally to all the changes,” Bruce says. He acknowledges that wearing masks is something that workers are still getting used to, and will become even more difficult as the weather gets warmer.
“It’s hard enough to wear a mask just going to the grocery store.”
Other measures being taken include wiping down tools and color-coding radios so each is assigned to a specific individual. Some customers require paperwork to verify steps being taken, Bruce says. Pennsylvania also requires a designated safety officer on site.
“We’ve got to adapt to our customers’ needs and requirements. Which we are,” he says.
Pictured: Dominic Donofrio, business development manager with Enertech Electrical Inc., observes Justin Stanovcak as he works on an electrical panel. The company is working to follow state guidelines and observe wellness screenings.