The Great Recession: Will Construction Workers Survive?

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Jim R. Bounds / Bloomberg News / Getty

Carpenters install vinyl siding on a home under construction in Clayton, North Carolina.

The middle and working-classes have been hammered by the Great Recession and no industry has taken it more on the chin than construction. Nationally, unemployment fell to 9.7% in January, but in construction it jumped to 24.7% from 18.7% in October. In many regions, union officials report 30% of their members are unemployed or "riding the bench." "In the previous 14 years, I had not been out of work for more than one week," says Pat O'Connor, 57, a Connecticut carpenter. With no work since July, O'Connor says, "It is a bad dream turning into a nightmare. Is construction dead? It's just horrible right now. No one expected this. It's a depression." He has a mortgage and is worried he will fall behind and lose his condo. "When I go to bed, I keep the TV on just so I have the noise. If it gets silent, I get a panic attack."

Commercial construction workers are in a bind. Before, if work dried up in Boston or Seattle, carpenters, electricians and plumbers would pack up and go to Las Vegas or Texas or Alaska. "Now there is no work anywhere," says Mark Erlich, whose New England Regional Council of Carpenters represents 22,000 union members in six states. "The largest problem is the continued lack of financing," says Jerry Rhoades, executive secretary treasurer of the Florida Carpenters Regional Council. "In the summer of 2009, there were 800 jobs on the books to build across the state. We do commercial, high-rise residential and power plants. The permits were ready, but the financing dried up. I am in my 60s and I've never experienced a downturn like this. Three years ago, three contractors would bid on a project. Now 90 contractors bid on a project. That is how desperate people are."

In the Southwest, the construction site is what the factory floor is to the MidWest — the place where blue-collar men and women earn their keep. A tour of downtown Los Angeles and the industrial warehouse area to the south finds busy jobs sites few and far between. In Vernon, Oltmans Construction Co., ranked as one of the nation's elite "Top 400 Contractors" by Engineering News Record, is completing a gleaming white 60,000 square foot warehouse and office space for CR Lawrence whose business is construction, industrial, architectural and automotive supplies. Ed Sorbel, superintendent for Carpenter's Local 630, says at the project's peak more than 70 men worked at the site. But the outlook is grim for commercial construction firms such as Oltmans and its union work force. Asked if business is picking up, Oltmans Project Manager James Wu, 37, says, "I have not seen it. It's not looking good ahead."

General Foreman Javier Gonzalez, 50, wearing a red bandana and an orange Oltmans T-shirt, says, "I was only out of work for two months in '09." Other carpenters were not so lucky. Gonzalez says his laid-off colleagues are paying their bills in a variety of ways. "One guy is doing tattoos. Some guys are bartending. And there is a group who work for realtors cleaning out foreclosed homes. They empty everything that is left in the house, resell what that can salvage and do minor repairs. It's sad. There is no work right now. Here we are in February and we've only picked up one job this year. In four weeks when this job is done, I'll be out on my ass."

Local 630, based in Long Beach, has 400 carpenters in the field with Oltmans when business is strong, says Sorbel, the union's top man on the Vernon project. "We are trying to keep our core guys, 125 to 150 men, busy. But there is no work out there." Miles Davy, a burly asphalt subcontractor, says there have been massive layoffs across all sectors of the construction trades. "I've had to let go men I have known for years. Grown men crying in my office. It's the saddest thing I've ever done."

In downtown Los Angeles, just east of Little Tokyo, one of the only active construction sites is a 53-unit apartment building at Alameda and 4th Street. Valentin Marquez, 41, father of four, does foundation and concrete work. Before this job he says he was out of work for a year. He is now struggling to keep his house. "The company I worked for for 18 years went bankrupt," he says. His colleague, Alonzo Chavez, 34, worked for the same contractor and then took a job in a burrito factory at minimum wage. Both non-union men, hands gray with concrete dust, know this job will only last another two months. "This year looks rough," says Marquez as he sits in the cab of his blue GMC pickup truck.

In the Northwest, the contraction in commercial construction came late, says Eric Franklin, spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. "We're at the bottom now." Across a membership of 26,000 in 42 locals in five states unemployment ranges from 21% to 35%. One bright spot: a few big public projects on the horizon, including a floating bridge that will connect Seattle to its suburbs. "It's a mess," says Erlich in New England. "The private sector is dead. We're at the point where we are considering investing money from our pension fund in construction projects. We either need another stimulus focused on job creation or the banks must be directed to lend."

North America's largest building-trades union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters is a half-million members strong. For tens of thousands of its members, and the millions of Americans who depend on the construction business to make a living, it is a winter of anxiety and discontent. Tim Ahern of Carpenters Local 210 in Fairfield, Connecticut sums up the plight of the construction trades across the nation. "I only worked 20 hours the whole year in 2009."