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COVID-19: Two Years Later

Changes Made, Lessons Learned


While COVID-19 didn’t rear its ugly head until late 2019, it wasn’t until March 2020 that the world took note of the looming pandemic, and many states issued work-from-home orders. On the horizon were words and phrases that weren’t in our standard lexicon—masking up, social distancing, etc.


    

Now it has been two years since the initial unbelievable events began to unfold as COVID-19 spread around our planet. Today we recognize the numerous effects on our personal and business lives that we have had to learn to deal and live with.

    

We asked contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry to share their rearview mirror insights on the pandemic to date, how it has affected their companies and the industry as a whole and, in particular, any lessons learned along the way that may be useful for others and for the future.



Long-term Internal Changes

Our first question: What overall, longer-term internal changes has your company undergone as a result of COVID-19, for better or for worse?

    

Steve Nienke, executive vice president of Midwest Drywall Co. Inc. in Kansas, answered, “We have more turnover in our offices than ever before—people who had been with us for two to 15 years. And it’s tougher to hire new people to replace the ones who have left.”

    

“To date, we are still alternating folks in and out of the offices,” says Bret Young, sales manager for Marek Brothers Systems in Dallas. “Omicron seems more contagious than delta,” he adds, “So, to be safe, we’re adhering to the CDC guidelines in addition to our internal safety policies.”

    

Veronica DeBonise, president of G&G Plaster, EIFS & Drywall, Inc. in Wareham, Mass., explains, “We’re a small company and haven’t had significant impact regarding how we operate. Our biggest obstacles have been financial, due to projects closing and lack of sales. PPP kept us healthy financially. Now our biggest obstacle is vaccination status and job-site requirements.”

    

“We have implemented CDC guidelines on COVID-19, updating our company policies as needed, educating our workforce and promoting healthier employees,” says Dan Branas, general superintendent at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in Campbell, Calif.

    

Ed Heberer, principal at American Wood Installers in New York, notes, “We have concentrated on the larger projects that have stayed open and also on hospital work.”

    

Many of the long-term internal changes are technology-based. For example, Bill McKibban, vice president of AIMM Philadelphia Installations in New Jersey, says, “We upgraded our technology to allow some staff to work off-site and permit more information to go from the site to the office and ultimately to our clients electronically.”

    

And Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Corporation, Los Angeles, Inc., notes, “We now hold almost all of our internal and external meetings through (Microsoft) Teams. This saves thousands of dollars since we do not have to drive or fly to our destination. And it is immediate—I don’t have to travel in the Los Angeles area traffic. However, if you go to someone’s office to talk to them, they are often in a virtual meeting so they cannot be disturbed. A few of our staff have elected to work from home, which can be very effective if they have the right environment and equipment to do so.”

    

Mike Weber, president of Island Acoustics, LLC in New York, says, “We have expanded access to VPN on our servers for key tasks by employees to handle mission-critical day-to-day tasks to keep the company operational.”

    

“We have learned to adapt faster to things beyond our control,” says Shawn Burnum, vice president of operations for Performance Contracting, Inc. in Kansas. “I believe our internal communication on these conditions improved over time and we were able to learn how to disseminate information quickly. I hope our people understood how much we care about them personally and that their health is our top priority.”

    

For some, there has been very little internal change during the pandemic. Mike Miller, president of Miller Drywall, Inc. in Missouri, says there was no real change “except for some personal masks and hand cleaner.”

    

And Mike Mazzone, president of Statewide General Contracting & Construction Inc. in Hawaii, has stronger views: “After the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, we believed the information being delivered to us by the ‘professionals.’ By April of that year, I personally realized that it was invalid. My company has made no internal changes to our business practices.”



External Changes

Next we asked contractors about overall external changes they have noticed in the market and the industry.

    

Nienke sums up a common response: “We see supply chain disruptions and across-the-board material price increases. Any real pricing stability has disappeared, and inflation is starting to raise prices further.”

    

“The price of material has skyrocketed and material orders take longer to arrive,” says DeBonise. “Even when delivery is scheduled, we sometimes have to deal with added delays.”

    

Branas says, “The changes are clear in our nation’s infrastructure, the supply disruptions and the labor shortages. The circumstances will continue to be challenging.”

    

“Materials have gone through the roof, and we experienced losses on some jobs,” says Miller from Missouri.

    

There have clearly been shifts in the type of work companies are focusing on.

    

Weber in New York sums it up: “The retail market is dead. The residential high-rise market is dead. Industrial buildings are robust. Low-income housing is robust. Government contracts are fat, dumb and clueless.”

    

“Small to mid-size projects have been reduced by 80%,” says Heberer, also in New York.

    

McKibban in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania area reports that “a majority of the furniture dealers we work for still have not committed to being back in the office 100%. The office furniture industry is still in flux, not knowing how office space will look one, three or five years from now.”

    

Government and local mandates regarding vaccines are another external change still very much present. Burnum in Kansas says, “We are still seeing owners mandating vaccinations on their job sites, which is a real difficulty as many on our crews are not vaccinated. The government’s inability to have a common approach and message has caused chaos and confusion. The protective measures change from day to day and from one jurisdiction to another. With crews all over a region, it can be challenging. What one part of the city finds acceptable, another doesn’t.”

    

“Obsessed with COVID-19 and controlling every business in the state, we have been pounded with mandate after mandate from state and city politicians,” says Mazzone in Hawaii. “The city and county of Honolulu prohibit any contractor to have any employee on any project who is not vaccinated. The State of Hawaii allows for weekly testing at the expense of the contractor. For contracts that were in place before these requirements, no change orders have been allowed to cover any of the costs involved with complying to the requirements added by executive orders.”

    

Another change noted is how companies interface with clients and the industry in general. DeHorn says, “I have noticed that we do not see our clients or our vendors as much in person. Office restrictions have really put a damper on marketing. We have seen a decline in work-associated golf tournaments, exhibitions and association meetings or events that have been canceled due to the county’s current COVID-19 mandates.”

    

Young says that 90% of meetings are via virtual platforms, in-house as well as with clients. “Several events I’ve attended lately appear to have around 60% of the typical turn out,” he says.



Lessons Learned

We asked our members if, looking back over the last two years, there was anything they felt they should have done differently.

    

For several of our respondents the answer came down to “not really.” As McKibban says, “We had to handle each situation as it arose. The changing ‘guidance’ from state and city governments, the CDC and general contractors made any plan I put together very provisional.” Most have simply done their best under the changing circumstances.

    

Young is in two minds. “The increase in supply chain costs and the scarcity of commodities caught us off guard. I would have liked to have had more inventory,” he says. “On the other hand, several projects were scrapped.”

    

Weber goes further, however, saying, “Yes. I should have retired after doubling our N95 mask inventory.”

    

Branas of Daley’s Drywall would like to have “evaluated risks generated by this historic event and rewritten binding contracts.”

    

“In hindsight, we should have pursued even more hospital and airport work,” says Heberer.

    

Miller explains the problem that has made it hard to make decisions: “The biggest problem was and still is who to believe in this mess. COVID-19 is like a common cold—there is no cure yet and you have to live with it, except it can kill you.”

    

“We have now lived through a pandemic,” comments DeHorn. “We have established office policies based on some of the outcomes of the pandemic. Hopefully we will not have another in the near future but if we do, we will be ready to enact those policies with ease.”



Rolling with the Punches

We ended our interviews with an open question so that those we talked with could respond with other thoughts on the subject. Answers varied enormously.

    

“These are tough times, trying to keep our work progressing and profitable,” says Nienke.

    

Young says, “Lack of labor all over the globe has impacted supply chains severely, causing many businesses to fail. Escalation in costs for all goods and services as well as lead times causing schedules to slide, impact costs very quickly.”

    

“Employers are now faced with dealing with employee vaccination status,” says DeBonise. “Not all employees are willing to receive the vaccination. For companies with military and other contracts, a complete vaccination record is mandatory to work on-site. This creates a problem.”

    

“Managing a business in this new normal is challenging on so many levels,” says Weber, but like many, he takes the positive view. “With that said I am blessed to be working with a great team here at Island Acoustics that is committed to constructing with purpose, passion and pride.”

    

“I believe we have to keep moving forward and not shut our country down under any circumstances,” says Miller. “I feel this has done more harm than good to many businesspeople.”

    

McKibban says he would like to “dismiss the concept of the new normal. Business is about being able to adapt to changing tastes and conditions. Some of the changes due to COVID-19 seemed capricious and made people overreact. I hope that nothing from this becomes normal.”

    

“We aren’t done,” cautions Burnum. “Who knows how this will continue to evolve? But we will adapt and move forward.”  

    

“Encourage everyone to stay connected and informed, be with family and friends and restore inspiration in our communities,” urges Branas.

    

“Had the government not considered us essential workers, we would be out of business for sure,” says Heberer.

    

And despite his misgivings about those in charge of handling the pandemic, Burnum takes a very positive view of events over the last two years: “As an industry, I am proud of how we handled COVID-19 and remained ‘critical’ in most of the country. I believe it improved the industry’s image in our communities as we adapted and kept people as safe as possible. Our work provided care to so many people in their time of need. We should be proud of that and celebrate it.”

    

Despite justifiable dissatisfaction with how those responsible have handled the pandemic, it seems that the industry, or at least the AWCI contractors we spoke to, are rolling with the punches and finding their way through this adversity, determined and undaunted as ever.



David C Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.

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