Santa Barbara construction thrives amid coronavirus pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have disrupted every part of life and every business in Santa Barbara County, but one industry has remained strong amid closures and uncertainty.
Despite some disruptions and adjustments to new public health standards, Santa Barbara’s construction firms have managed to keep a majority of workers employed on various projects around the county.
“Probably one of the shining lights in this whole thing has been construction,” said Kurt Bueche, territory manager for Giffin Rentals.
Giffin Rentals, Goleta’s oldest business, buys, sells and rents all kinds of construction equipment, including excavators, backhoes, and trucks. It has continued supporting Santa Barbara’s many construction firms throughout the pandemic.
Throughout the last few months, Giffin has rented equipment to grocery store projects, retirement homes, street work, and even Granite Construction’s massive five year, 12.5 mile highway expansion project in Carpinteria for Caltrans.
“You name it and you can find a project. There is a lot of construction going on,” said Randy Dvorak, Giffin’s sales director.
Throughout the pandemic, Lash Construction is completing municipal projects from the city’s Eastside to the Mesa in Santa Barbara. Some projects, like a water-main replacement, were paused to keep water from being shut off during the crisis, but Lash’s street projects have continued as planned.
“We’re doing concrete work on Cota, on the Mesa, on Hope, on La Cumbre. Paving on the Eastside. Really all over town in various locations. Right now we’re working up on the Mesa Lane area where we’re replacing handicap ramps. We have a waterline crew on Anacapa Street at Cabrillo and we were allowed to finish a water main we were doing on Cabrillo Boulevard because everything was so dead down there for so long,” said Alan Lash, vice president of Lash Construction.
Other major projects include the new Sprouts Farmers Market and shopping center remodel at 29 S. Milpas St.
For a little over a year, Frank Schipper Construction has been demolishing the interior of the Trader Joe’s, Petco and a tobacco shop that previously occupied the location, and is now in phase two of building a brand new facade on the entire shopping center that includes the Rite Aid and Jack’s Bistro Famous Bagels & Catering.
Work has been consistent, but it has not been smooth sailing for many firms.
At Lash Construction, the delays on some municipal projects forced the firm to temporarily lay off one-third of its workers.
“It’s not like these were guys we didn’t like or they weren’t good employees, it’s just that we didn’t simply have the work for them and we thought it was fairer to just have them be on unemployment and know what they were going to expect every week,” said Mr. Lash.
When the pandemic first hit, several of Schipper Construction’s projects apart from 29 S. Milpas St. were put on hold, and about eight of their personnel were let go for a month. However, as the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic has abated, those projects have started to move forward in the last few weeks.
“We were really fortunate because really in all this we were able to get back five to six of (our employees) already. We got them back about three weeks ago, so we’re building our workforce back up,” said Gary Church, superintendent for Frank Schipper Construction.
Although there were some workers furloughed, the majority have remained employed, and those that were on unemployment have begun to return.
“For the most part our key guys are working,” said Mr. Lash.
“We’re fortunate in our industry to have been working. It’s kept all our guys sane not sitting at home.”
The Milpas project has 60 to 70 workers employed at the site, including several subcontractors under Schipper Construction.
“I’ve got maybe seven or eight subcontractors on the job,” said Mr. Church. “It’s amazing how we’ve kept these companies going. Really that was the key — keeping everybody going and keeping people as much as possible off of the unemployment.”
Keeping work moving along and maintaining project schedules has been a challenge however, especially with the added safety precautions now required at job sites.
At the Milpas project, face masks are mandatory, social distancing is maintained, and sanitization is done multiple times a day. The biggest challenge has been employees turning up for work sick, Mr. Church told the News-Press.
“We go and look at these guys. We take a look at them and see if there’s something wrong. We’ve actually sent home probably half a dozen guys because they showed up to work sick. If they have colds, even a cold, I sent them home to get well. We don’t want to be spreading anything. Period. That was a challenge because we had to hit every one of these guys on a daily basis,” said Mr. Church.
Despite the setbacks, construction firms remain optimistic about the state of the industry in the county as projects continue to pop up.
“The estimators have got jobs coming out of their ears, and that’s a good thing. That’s awesome. That’s showing that our economy is getting back into the swing of things,” said Mr. Church.
Although budget restraints could lead to fewer municipal projects in the coming years, Mr. Lash is confident Santa Barbara will rebound thanks to tourism from the Los Angeles area. However, as other counties struggle, he anticipates contractors will flock to the area to bid on projects, making the field more competitive.
“Our hope is for Congress to do an infrastructure plan,” said Mr. Lash. “I think that was needed before all this, but it’s been proven in the past that large infrastructure programs stimulate the economy, so I think that’s something that everyone in our industry is hoping for moving forward.”