Construction COVID cases garner little oversight

Second highest number of clusters in Nashville

A construction worker walks past a sign the reads
A construction worker walks past a sign the reads "Please wash your hands for at least 25 seconds" at a construction site. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

While Nashville officials deploy more resources to enforce mask mandates at the honky tonks lining Lower Broadway, the city’s loosely regulated construction sites have emerged as the No. 2 source of the city’s coronavirus clusters.

By last week, there were 233 COVID cases associated with outbreaks at 18 Nashville construction sites. Only long term care facilities have had more identified outbreaks, with 27 nursing homes identified as Nashville cluster sources.

Immigrant rights and labor organizations, who have advocated for stronger safety protocols to protect a largely immigrant labor force, believing the numbers are higher. 

Carolina, a 42-year-old mother of three children, cleaned trash for a subcontractor building apartments on 5th and Broadway and came to work one day in early April to find her floor had been evacuated for cleaning crews. 

Carolina asked that her full name be withheld, saying she feared backlash from her previous employers, with  Tennessee Lookout verifying her health care and employment records.

She found out later on that several employees had contracted COVID and soon began to feel sick herself. Avoiding doctors, she tried home remedies to combat symptoms of vomit, severe headaches and dizziness. 

Despite her efforts, Carolina landed in the hospital on June 2, after telling her sister she feared she was going to die. Several months later, Carolina still hasn’t fully recovered, struggles to pay the bills and relies on family and members of her church for financial support. She and her three children were almost evicted and her employer never attempted to make any amends despite never informing workers of the COVID outbreaks. Carolina remembers being forced to buy her own personal protective equipment. 

Carolina said her employer knew of her condition but did not inform the health department. She’s not received a follow up call since becoming ill. 

“If the government had done what they’re supposed to do, this never would have happened,” said Carolina. 

City health officials said their epidemiologists have been providing CDC guidance to worksites experiencing outbreaks and advising employers on quarantine, testing and isolation. 

Brian Todd, spokesman for the health department, referred questions about enforcing worker safety to the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or TOSHA.

Cluster Site Type Number of Cluster Sites
Long Term Care Facility 27
Construction 18
Commercial Warehouse 10
Bars 6
Shelters 4
Correctional Facility 2
Food Production 2
Healthcare (non-long-term-care) 1
College / University parties 1
Restaurant 2
Day Care 2
Grocery 1
Other 7

o   Updated cluster counts by type:

A spokesman for TOSHA said his agency “does not have jurisdiction over the spread of germs in the workplace.”

“The typical spread of germs in the workplace is not governed by any workplace health standard, other than sanitation, which requires employers to provide soap and water for employee hygiene,” said Chris Cannon, a TOSHA spokesman. 

In the absence of state or local oversight, it has been left to individual employers and construction sites to enforce rules designed to protect workers from infection. 

JE Dunn Construction, which has a number of projects in Nashville, including a mixed use building at 1812 Broadway and a Hyatt Centric hotel,  follows CDC guidelines such as encouraging workers to socially distance when able, adding extra hand washing stations, reducing capacity at dining areas where workers take lunch breaks and enforcing glove and mask rules, said Emily Gallagher, a company spokesperson.

“Masks can be uncomfortable and warm in the summer months, but we feel strongly that the benefits and safety for our workers is paramount, and outweighs any minor discomfort,” said Gallagher. 

If workers test positive or have pending tests, safety professionals are to oversee contact tracing.

“We also have safety personnel on site to help enforce our policies. If we do have a worker who tests positive or has a test pending, these safety professionals oversee the contact tracing, reporting to the health department, and communication to all impacted, including our client and building partners,” said Gallagher. 

Ethan Link, a spokesman for Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee (AFL-CIO) said workers often lack information about positive cases when they step onto a construction site.

“One of the biggest tensions that we’ve had is people who work for one contrator will come onto a site and not be told they’re coming onto a site where there’s been a  major outbreak, and some of the workers will say [they] would not have agreed to come there if or had some high expectations for the cleanliness,” Link said.

  We can't have it both ways. We can't both say this is essential work that has to go on but also we're not going to do much of anything to hold contractors accountable for cleanliness and safety.   – Ethan Link, Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee

Compounding the risks, some workers may not be reporting illness at all due to fear of losing wages, he said. 

“I believe there’s a huge undercount on the people who have gotten [COVID-19], specifically at construction sites,” Link said. “I know from organizers who have told me that people are staying home with all the symptoms and won’t go to the hospital because they’re worried about their documented status or in general misinformation of fear.”

Many construction sites currently operating in Nashville are long-term commercial projects, such as hotels are office space that are not slated to open for months or years, Link noted.

“We can’t have it both ways. We can’t both say this is essential work that has to go on but also we’re not going to do much of anything to hold contractors accountable for cleanliness and safeness,” he said.

Mayor John Cooper’s office has not responded to emailed questions asking whether additional enforcement efforts or other city resources should be directed towards construction sites.

The health department’s  “At-Risk Nashvillian Plan,” which identified construction sites as sources of COVID clusters, recommended education and outreach to impacted communities. 

The At-Risk plan focuses on educating workers, but does not include efforts to educate or monitor employers. 

Gov. Bill Lee called a special legislative session, beginning today, to vote on the “Tennessee Recovery and Safe Harbor Act,” which seeks to provide retroactive legal immunity from civil lawsuits related to the COVID-19. The act failed to pass previously, receiving 46 votes but requiring 50 for passage