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Building on change

Precision Masonry foreman Manuel Ramos lays cinder blocks while working on a fence outside Kirtland Air Force Base’s Gibson Gate on June 17. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico in mid-March, Precision Masonry still had a backlog of projects on its docket.

But as the economic crisis brought on by the virus worsened, co-owner Michael Espinosa said that started to change quickly.

In addition to a slowdown in the retail sector, Espinosa said the collapse of the oil and gas industry has led to some of the large municipal projects the Albuquerque-based masonry firm relies on – including schools, hospitals and fire department buildings – being delayed or canceled.

Precision Masonry has had a number of government-funded projects canceled since the pandemic.

“There’s just a lot of buildings that aren’t gonna be built,” Espinosa said.

As a result, he said the firm, which had 100 employees working at the start of the year, has around half that number going into work sites at this point.

“I’ve got a few good employees staying at home right now, because I don’t have any work for them,” Espinosa said.

While not every company is facing the same impacts as Precision Masonry, contractors and subcontractors throughout Albuquerque’s construction industry are adapting to the new normal created by the spread of the virus.

Precision Masonry, like others in the construction industry, is adapting as a result of the pandemic and economic downturn.

Companies are adding hand sanitizer stations at work sites, reducing the number of workers per crew, shifting their business to more viable projects and finding other innovative ways to keep working during a global pandemic.

“We feel that we’ve done our jobs to protect our families, our workforce and our community at large,” said Chet Karnas, president of Albuquerque-based Lone Sun Builders.

Better off than some

While it hasn’t been completely spared, New Mexico’s construction industry has so far fared better during the recent economic downturn than industries like leisure and hospitality. Commercial and residential construction was deemed essential in New Mexico under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s lockdown order in March, allowing companies to keep working even as business in other industries closed their doors temporarily.

As of May, the most recent month with available data, the number of people employed in New Mexico’s construction industry increased by nearly 4% year-over-year, making it one of the very few industries not to see job losses last month.

Indeed, things haven’t changed all that much for some local companies since the pandemic began. Bob Chavez, co-owner of Chavez Concrete Contractors, said he still has plenty of projects for his 95 employees, including pouring concrete for Facebook and Amazon projects in central New Mexico.

“As far as work goes, we haven’t slowed down at all,” Chavez said.

Still, some construction sectors have fared better than others. Karnas Lone Sun Builders said several retail and office projects his company was involved in were canceled or postponed.

In response, Karnas said his company has shifted its approach and prioritized health care industry projects, including work on Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe. Karnas said he’s less bullish on the short-term future of retail space.

“Retail, brick and mortar, I think a lot of people are going to be a little bit skeptical,” he said.

Another company, APIC Solutions Inc., has carved out a new niche for itself within the construction industry. CEO Jesse Pickard said the electrical contractor has gotten requests to install security and life safety systems, including cameras and temperature screening devices, from casinos, government offices and other buildings looking to reopen safely.

Pickard said the new installations have helped them stay busy even as the flow of new projects has started to slow.

“This time last year, nobody cared what anybody’s temperature was,” Pickard said.

On the residential side, new construction has gone a bit more smoothly. Scott Henry, president and CEO of Stillbrooke Homes, said bureaucratic slowdowns related to the spread of the virus delayed the groundbreaking of Luna Vita, a new housing development in the Northeast Heights. However, he said, nearly all the original homebuyers stuck with him through the delays.

Even with all the changes, Henry said the core indicators driving Albuquerque’s recent home price growth are still present.

“The demand is still there, the low inventory of homes in the market is still there,” Henry said.

Likewise, Abrazo Homes broke ground on a new subdivision in Los Lunas earlier this year, ahead of the pandemic. Despite an April slowdown, marketing director Sheena Ramos said the development is on pace to have the first round of homes move-in ready by autumn.

“In mid-June, we’re ahead of projects,” Ramos said.

Safety first

In the short term, some construction industry companies said the priority is keeping workers healthy and safe. On job sites where social distancing is challenging, the companies that spoke to the Journal said they are requiring masks.

Workers smooth a concrete slab June 24 at a new subdivision in Northeast Albuquerque that’s under construction by Stillbrooke Homes.

“We wanted to be very proactive,” Pickard said. “We were wearing face masks long before they were required by the governor.”

Henry noted that construction workers, particularly specialists like painters and framers, are used to wearing masks, gloves and other protective equipment on active job sites.

A crew works at a new Stillbrooke Homes housing development in Northeast Albuquerque that’s under construction.

Karnas added that Lone Sun Builders has gone a step farther, reducing the number of workers on each crew down to five, compared to 20 to 40 in normal times. The company was also among the first to partner with the New Mexico Department of Health to offer expanded testing for employees.

While the safety measures have slowed down the contractor at times, Karnas said it’s worth it to make sure the company is protecting its employees.

“Our strategy has been to research thoroughly, to vet thoroughly and to communicate transparently with the health care community,” Karnas said.

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