As many parts of North America re-enter some form of lockdown, many project managers are unclear as to whether construction is an essential business. Keep reading to learn how various jurisdictions approach this issue.
What is an essential business?
Essential businesses are those providing services governments deem imperative for societal functioning. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) classifies these services under the term “critical infrastructure.” These 16 sectors fall under that classification:
food and agriculture
Public Safety Canada, meanwhile, has identified these 10 sectors as essential:
energy and utilities
information and communication technologies
States and provinces have a fair bit of freedom regarding how they implement these federal guidelines, as you’ll see later in the article.
Is construction an essential business?
While construction itself isn’t listed among the essential sectors in Canada or the United States, it supports sectors that are. As such, relevant infrastructure work has continued throughout the pandemic.
Highways, water treatment facilities, healthcare institutions, energy plans, and more continue to be built, keeping construction crews busy.
That said, construction leaders have been pushing for inclusion on the list of essential services. The President of North America’s Building Trades Unions and the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America issued a joint statement in March calling on the government to “treat the construction industry and the work it performs as vital and essential to the critical industries that must remain in operation.”
Examples of essential construction work
Next, let’s take a closer look at how construction has served a few critical sectors.
Construction workers continue to play an integral role in building the healthcare facilities that service an increased demand for testing and treating COVID patients. In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, officials extended construction hours for healthcare projects, allowing crews to work around the clock building new facilities and expanding existing ones.
To protect workers, the government also ramped up its job site inspection efforts.
Industrial (energy, chemical, waste, etc)
For these sectors, CISA identifies as essential the role of expanding, operating, and distributing resources – all of which touch on construction.
In many populous parts of North America, governments are taking advantage of empty streets to speed up the construction of transportation infrastructure, recognizing the importance of said infrastructure for keeping essential resources moving.
While physical roads have seen a decrease in demand during COVID-19 lockdowns, digital highways experienced the exact opposite. Construction crews have played an essential role in maintaining and building communication infrastructure throughout North America to keep up with increased loads on networks.
In the pandemic’s early days, CISA overlooked this area. However, following pressure from the industry, the agency conceded, including communications among its list of essential sectors, which paved the way for construction projects to continue.
The manufacturing sector has faced considerable demand throughout the pandemic, with many facilities retooling and expanding to support the creation of medical supplies. Construction workers have helped build and modify the infrastructure required for this shift.
While the fight against COVID-19 has captured much of our attention this year, other threats have not subsided. Defense agencies continue their work ensuring security, helped by the countless construction workers that oversee building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure.
How individual states treat construction
As mentioned earlier, the guidelines we’ve discussed thus far come from the federal governments of Canada and the United States. Smaller jurisdictions have used these guidelines to craft their own restrictions. As a result, the list of essential construction projects in each state and province can differ substantially. Let’s take a closer look, starting with U.S. states.
States in which construction is essential
The vast majority of U.S. state governments have declared construction an unequivocally essential service, with local governments upholding that decision. According to the Journal of Light Construction, that includes:
District of Columbia
Governments in many of these states have issued executive orders specifically adding residential construction to the list of essential services (it’s not on CISA’s list).
Keep in mind that even in states where construction is unequivocally essential, governments have often introduced enhanced health and safety measures.
Grey area states
No state has implemented an outright ban on construction across the board. However, many – like the federal government – have placed limits on its scope. These include:
New Jersey New York
States with no mandate
Lastly, several states have not issued any particular guidance regarding construction as an essential business. According to the Journal of Light Construction, these include:
How individual provinces treat construction
As of writing, construction has been deemed an essential service in all Canadian provinces. According to Engineering News-Record, most provinces maintained this view early on in the pandemic as well, refusing to shutter construction job sites. Ontario and Quebec are two notable exceptions.
In April 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued guidance limiting the scope of construction projects allowed to continue during COVID. Essential construction projects boiled down to those serving these sectors:
Limited residential construction projects were also allowed to continue.
Quebec, Canada’s hardest-hit province, saw a three-week shutdown of certain construction projects earlier in the pandemic. Residential construction suffered in particular, facing a total shutdown that was only lifted in late April.
Other challenges faced by construction companies during COVID
The construction industry has faced many challenges that go beyond certain types of projects being paused at various points. The changes brought about by the pandemic also resulted in a worse labor shortage. We wrote about these challenges as they relate to construction resource management in this article.
In a nutshell, construction companies have been forced to completely overhaul their safety protocols, implementing respirators, strict disinfection routines, and social distancing. These have tremendously affected businesses, presenting many challenges and opportunities for growth in the sector.
Is construction an essential business? Explicitly, at the federal level in Canada and the United States, the answer is no. However, industries identified as critical in both countries rely heavily on construction, meaning various types of projects have continued throughout the pandemic.
Additionally, individual states and provinces have been allowed to create their own mandates regarding COVID-19 restrictions. As such, many have listed construction as essential even though it’s not on federal lists.
We hope this article has been helpful to you in figuring out whether construction is a non-essential business in your region. For more construction management news and tips, visit our blog. Also check out “construction remote team management tips“