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By Gary Thill
Editor’s note: Developments are changing rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic. The following report represents what was happening as of this writing. The CDC offers more coronavirus business recommendations. OSHA also has offered guidance.
Earlier this year, roofers were raring to get started on what looked like the beginnings of a banner year. The economy was roaring, and jobs were plentiful, even the weather seemed to be cooperating. Then the first reports of coronavirus started coming in — and everything changed.
“We’ve had no time to prepare for this,” said Sherri Miles, vice president of J.D. Miles and Sons Inc. in Chesapeake, Va. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in two hours, two days and two weeks. So it feels similar to the recession of 2008 but very different.”
Indeed the landscape has shifted dramatically in just a few weeks with the economy in free fall, businesses and schools closing and citizens “sheltering in place” in an effort to curb the rising tide of coronavirus outbreaks — more than 30,000 cases and climbing as of this writing.
One of the latest efforts to contain the virus, and most concerning for contractors, is Boston’s decision to shut down construction projects altogether for the next two weeks. At least two other major metropolises, San Francisco and New York City, are reportedly eyeing similar measures. The actions received a swift rebuke from the Association of General Contractors.
“Halting construction activity will do more harm than good for construction workers, community residents and the economy,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr. “Construction firms are already acting to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the face of the coronavirus outbreak,” he said, adding that construction workers typically wear protective equipment, including gloves.
Amid all of these ruptures to life and work, several key industry events have been cancelled including NRCA’s Roofing Day, and Diversity + Inclusion events. “Unfortunately, given the unique size and scope of Roofing Day in D.C. 2020, it is not feasible for the event to be rescheduled this year,” NRCA said in a statement.
Additionally, NRCA has postponed its March 20 Foreman Leadership Training, Level 1 class in Rosemont, Ill., and March 26-27 Qualified Trainer Conference in Portsmouth, Va. In related news, the North/East Roofing Contractors Association annual convention in Atlantic City has been postponed until further notice. A new date has not been determined. Registration refunds will be provided to attendees who complete and submit an online form at nerca.org by May 1, 2020.
Meanwhile, roofers such as Miles are scrambling to adjust their business to the fast-changing times. Already she said the firm is experiencing delays in material shipments and importing issues. “Things are happening so quickly that you have to learn to pivot quickly,” Miles said. “We’ve already had a couple clients postpone their contracts or put them on hold.”
Of immediate concern to Miles and others are their employees and their families. Miles said she’s especially concerned about workers’ children, many of whom rely on schools for subsidized and free meals. “So we need to make sure we’re taking care of own people to sustain them during this time,” she said.
To that end, Ridge Valley Exteriors Inc. in Kennesaw, Ga., is working with St. Jude’s as well as local churches to supplement subsidized food options. “We see this as a philanthropic opportunity,” said Derric Stull, the company’s president and CEO. “We are well positioned to help.”
While Stull said that leads are still good for his firm, the company has taken steps to address COVID-19 fears and help ensure a healthy workforce. Each morning his 40-plus employees go through a health screen that includes a temperature check and any reports of deep coughing or other related coronavirus symptoms. “We have had customers ask for this information and we’re able to provide it,” Stull said. “It really puts people’s minds at ease.”
Another tool Stull is using to put customers’ minds at ease — and ensure future business in a flagging economy — is financing, and making sure he can offer it to clients in need.
As he takes those steps, Stull is also looking for business opportunities. For example, he negotiated aggressive deals on new trucks that were scheduled to purchase. At the same time, he’s holding off on other purchases. For her part, Miles is taking the down time as an opportunity to reassess her long-term business plans.
As another recession looks increasingly likely, both Stull and Miles are looking at ways to diversify their offerings to keep business flowing, just as they did during the last recession. “That diversity really helped us chug along during the last recession when the commercial economy tanked,” Miles said. “We just need to be aware and cognizant that opportunity will come to us that we don’t know about yet, and we want to be ready for it.
Both also recommend staying in close contact with management and other industry peers. “This is the time to have frank, candid conversations with your leadership team,” Stull said. “You can’t plan for something like this, but you can get ahead of it and get creative.”
But while the last recession offers some lessons for going forward in the time of coronavirus, both Stull and Miles agreed that things are also quite different this time. “This is a bigger deal because people are more traumatized about a global pandemic — and losing their health rather than just losing a job,” Stull said. “Emotionally and mentally, people seem to be more cautious this go around.”
Ultimately, the two sounded optimistic notes. “There’s definitely going to be bumps in the road ahead,” Stull said. “Maybe it won’t be the biggest year you thought it would be, but if you’re taking care of the community and employees, the rest will work itself out.”