The New York Times recently published an article titled, “When the Mundane Becomes Heroic” accompanied by a photographic census of what New York looks like today. It focused on the businesses that are open during the pandemic and the people working at them and featured a city with a weakened pulse reflecting the handful of essential businesses that remain open. This includes restaurants—take-out or delivery—grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and hardware stores, as directed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The article emphasized that, while under normal circumstances these roles might not seem heroic, at a time like this, when workers across the country are being told to stay home, “these workers are putting themselves at risk just by doing their jobs.” Lately, we’ve all developed an unprecedented appreciation for the people that make our cities tick. Social graces seem to be making a comeback, as we increasingly say and hear the words “thank you” these days. I agree. But the Times article forgot to capture one very heroic group—the men and women working in construction, who are building the cities we’re trying to save. In many places, including Toronto, construction has been deemed “essential” and these workers and their families are taking a risk in the time of COVID-19 “just by doing their jobs.”
This past Friday, Premier Ford tightened up the definition of essential construction and mandated that “no new construction activity can start.” For residential condominium projects, that means sites that have not received an above grade permit must halt construction. This is our order… for now.
It means that the majority of our communities and homes will continue to be built. It also means that our own onsite construction “superheroes” will go to work every day, using a new kind of armour to battle and defeat an invisible enemy, while many others take shelter at home. Those that work on our construction sites don’t have that same luxury. They continue to build communities and homes that one day, more people may have to take shelter in.
It used to be that the challenges of new housing involved protecting vulnerable populations, maintaining characteristics of existing neighbourhoods, providing new inventory in a climate of NIMBY-ism, promoting and building to environmental sustainability, and attempting to solve for affordability. To name just a few. They’re not small, by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s a new challenge we’re facing these days. And we all know that it’s an unfamiliar and elusive one. But we’ve been told to keep going. We’ve been told that what we do, building homes, is “essential.” With 80,000 high-rise homes currently under construction, a waiting list of almost 100,000 names for affordable housing, an almost equal number of immigrants coming to the GTA each year historically, and an already weak inventory of rental options, it’s easy to understand why. Ford also announced that we have approximately 45,000 families moving into new houses and condos in the next coming months.
We need more homes. And we are grateful to our everyday heroes who are building them.
And while some may criticize that condos are rented to tenants, remember that some aren’t. But regardless of whether it’s a condo or a rental, it’s still someone’s home, and a roof over someone’s head.
The circumstance of our homeless and shelter system is even more dire. As City of Toronto General Manager of Shelter of Support & Housing Administration, Mary-Anne Bedard recently told The Toronto Star, “ it feels a little bit like we’re trying to hold back a tidal wave” in the expectation that 800-1200 homeless people will test positive. At any given time, we have 8,000 people homeless, in our city and our shelters are bursting at the seams. As Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker says, “We can’t live like this. We shouldn’t have people in shelters. We shouldn’t be warehousing people. People should have homes.” Again, adding to our understanding of the green light to continue to build.
While fingers are pointed at the government for decades of housing inaction, the consequence is compounding the immediate health crisis and pointing fingers isn’t helpful. Building more homes, is.
Bruce Arthur’s Toronto Star opinion piece, “You are not powerless” brought it down to the basics of what you need during a pandemic. “People need to know they can afford food and a place to live.” Food and shelter = essential. (Along with healthcare). What we might take for granted though, is that beyond the frontlines of healthcare, there are other “essential” workers putting their lives on the line.
A lot of people think of construction, shrug their shoulders and assume we live and work in a world where we can “handle” this. After all, we already work in an industry that has highest rate of injury and fatality. What’s one more? In our opinion, it’s a lot.
For some, there’s the risk of a false sense of security and they aren’t too concerned, trusting the odds that they face and survive risk every day. For others, it’s not so simple. They have elderly parents at home, young children that rely on them, or they themselves that are vulnerable. They must weigh the risks, it’s a fine line and it’s certainly not a one size fits all. At the end of the day, each and every person has to make the decision that is best for themselves and for their families, without judgement.
This is what we have stressed. Everyone has a personal circumstance and threshold, and we respect that.
We’ve also set the bar higher than usual and done everything we can possibly think of to keep our people and our projects safe. Tridel is often referred to as “the big red machine.” But we all know its people who run the machine. Their safety is a team effort and everyone’s responsibility. I can’t think of any company today, that doesn’t have a COVID response team evaluating every new piece of information, trying to predict the unknown to shape their plan of action, which changes daily, if not hourly.
And with that instability, comes scrutiny. Rosie DiManno wrote in her column “Springing into a city at once sane and different” that despite this almost “post-apocalyptic” landscape that Toronto has taken the shape of recently, “one can still hardly walk a block without confronting a construction crew, surely not a vital occupation in these trying times.”
Despite the ongoing criticism and conflicting views that construction remains open, we are in fact “open.” We hear and understand the concern. We know the assumption that it cannot be done at a physical distance because of the sheer nature of the job… yet we are finding ways to mitigate the risk.
We have changed schedules, rotated trades, and asked supervisors to tackle the basic COVID precautions, such as enforcing six feet between bodies, increasing washing hands etc., all while still making certain that floors are level, doors swing properly and hardhats are secured on people’s heads. Some of these tasks we can almost do blindfolded, but as for the new “COVID” ones, we are continuing to learn and evolve.
Simple things, like limiting the hoist capacity to four people in a building under construction, didn’t anticipate or negate the spacing you have to do at the bottom of the shaft for the dozen or so people waiting for the next ride up. Learning how to pouring a slab with less people than you’re used to. We have learned to turn site entry points into “check points” that now resemble and feel like you’re crossing a border or about to clear customs to catch a flight, with increasing levels of security, including questionnaires and thermometers. All of these measures influence an already difficult and fluid schedule and we know the reality of their impact: time and money. But we also know that if delivering homes slightly later than what we anticipated is the price we pay for protecting the men and women building them, that’s more than well worth the effort. And it is for the greater good of all.
So the ruling is in. We’ve been deemed essential. Our response team is up and running and additional precautionary measures have been put in place. We should be good to go. All signs point to success. Rumour has it that our teams are in fair spirits considering the current climate and are doing well.
Then why am I still nervous? Those that know me would say that’s just my nature (at times). I think it’s because I’m familiar with the expression and (unfortunate) truth that “the closer you get to the top, the better the news you hear.” So I start to dig. I reach out. I email, text, make phone calls, and in some instances, even suit up with a mask and gloves to “check-in.” I know that it’s also in my nature (and best interest for all) to validate what I hear first-hand. While I didn’t connect with everyone, I connected with enough people to serve as a comfort. And I want to share with you what I learned.
They were appreciative. They were honest. Some were even grateful to maintain their normal “routines.” They shared their stories. Their realities. I even got to know a few of them a little better than I had before, and vice versa. Pandemics have a way of doing that to people. They take down walls. Perhaps the biggest “a-ha” moment that I captured from reaching out to these men and women, was the astonishing discovery that “their loyalty is greater than their fear.” They really do “bleed red.” And we are all the better because of it. In fact, we’re only who we are, because of it.
These heroes, as we see them, don’t just have a loyalty to their company, but also to each other, and to their team. They realize that some of the people that work on our site and “build buildings” do not get paid unless they are physically on the job. That’s food on the table for their families.
There’s also an extended loyalty to their city. They carry the weight knowing that, as the city’s economy continues to become more sparse, they are maintaining a level of economic activity. And, while globally there is immense suffering, they consider themselves to be one of the pillars keeping us all afloat.
So they continue to show up. Being loyal. Being brave. Being grateful. Despite the dilemma most of us are not familiar with, of having a spouse, child or parent who worries about them going to work some days. And yet each morning, they walk out of their own front doors, and into what one day, will become someone else’s.
As we continue to “up our efforts” and do what we’ve been asked to do by the greater powers that be, we know full well that any or all of this can change at any time. We also know that for the most part, the media will paint the industry by the stroke of one broad brush, which will be that of the lowest common denominator and worst offender. It won’t be Tridel. But until (if) that day arrives, we can continue to work, heads held high, knowing we are doing beyond our best, literally doing whatever it takes. We will bring our optimism and 1000%.
At the end of the day, it’s about the health of our people, more than the health of our economy. We won’t be able to build our city, if there’s no one to do the actual building. While it’s easy to point fingers, now is a time to come together not pull apart. One thing perhaps we can agree on, is that most of us are doing our best to strike a balance between people’s safety, the economy, housing needs and public health.
We have not heard the final word. It will continue to change. But for now, we seem to be one of the “last jobs standing.”
I speak for many when I say to each and every member of our team, we are inspired by the way you continue to show up for each other. For us. For the families that will one day live in what you build. And we thank you.
Your health and the safety, as well as the health and safety of your teams and all the workers in our industry is our top priority and we encourage and insist that you keep diligent with your safety. We look forward to coming through this stronger and more united than ever.
We know that this situation has sparked emotion and controversy. This article may as well. I’m okay with that. I’d rather have people speak up and risk the backlash than stay silent and comfortable. I’d rather be safe than sorry, and for that reason I will keep asking and listening and responding to what keeps our people up at night. I will defend them eternally. As always, and in alignment with our corporate mission, where safety is never compromised, we continue to do our best, to “do the right thing.”