Black-owned construction companies regroup as they restart amid COVID-19 Pandemic

For Detroit-based White Construction, the reopening of the state’s construction industry entails more than just social distancing or providing employees with personal protection equipment (PPE).

When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave the construction industry the greenlight to reopen on May 7th, it meant that construction companies would have to reopen shuttered construction sites. But that wouldn’t come with the ease of flicking a light-switch.

“We’re not doing too well because of this COVID-19,” said White Construction President and CEO Donovan J. White. “All our projects were shut down.”

White added that it had to totally revamp the way his company conducts construction.

White Construction will have the PPE of mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, and adhere to the six feet of social distancing, White said. But even with the protection comes challenges.

“It is distancing and shared tool use,” White said.

In the construction industry, workers commonly share tools which present a sanitation challenge.

Meanwhile, White Construction isn’t the only construction company confronting changes with the industry reopening.

Swint Logistics Group hauls cabinets to New York, and gravel and asphalt to construction sites throughout metro Detroit. It is approaching the reopening with some trepidation while adjusting to doing business in the COVID-19 era.

The transportation company, which has three employees and uses subcontractors, is requiring mask on job sites and frequent wipe downs of its truck cabs with a sanitizing cleaning solution, said Cherri Swint, the company’s founder and CEO.

Ironically, the company’s $9 million contract with the New York City Public Housing Authority put Swint and an employee in the eye of the coronavirus’ epicenter. That happened on the cusp of Gov. Whitmer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandated stay-at-home orders.

“I was in New York twice a week from December until March 9th – the last trip,” Swint said. “I was concerned with the New York trips because we were exposed to so many people. We walked through four city blocks and we ate at a restaurant.”

So Swint realizes that her company’s lucrative New York Housing contract presents a dilemma. That is keeping company drivers safe from contracting and spreading COVID-19 on the job.

“How do I put two people in a truck for 12 hours?” Swint asked.

The virus has also exacted a personal toll on Swint.

“I just loss my mother to COVID,” said Swint of her mother, Rev. Darla Swint, who succumbed to the virus in April.

Meanwhile, other construction companies, such as Brinker Cos., tried to get out in front of the stay-at-home order and the reopening with preparation.

“We were one of the first to close our office and job sites,” said Larry Brinker Jr., president of Brinker Cos.

Brinker executives huddled daily to prepare for dealing with the various scenarios it might be confronted with when the industry was cleared to reopen.

“This is something we spent eight to 10 weeks on,” Brinker said. “Our executive team met at 10 a.m. every morning on Zoom.”

The challenges of operating during a global pandemic caused Brinker Cos. to be more innovative and creative, Brinker said. He suggested the company has become stronger because of going through this experience.

“We are fortunate to have a solid team of executives with Brinker,” said Brinker of his employees.

Brinker employees are being equipped with the essential PPE and will be adhering to social distancing. The company upgraded its porta-potty situation to a level suited for the COVID-19 era, Brinker said. It has built new customized wash stations.

Gov. Whitmer’s initial stay-at-home order didn’t preclude Brinker Cos. from hanging onto the 75 people it employs.

In fact, the company was able to use a loan from the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to keep paying its employees, Brinker said.

So as construction companies reopen and try to adjust to the new normal, there are indications that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan would also like to see construction sites humming with activity.

On the very day of the reopening, the mayor announced the resumption of six housing projects worth $120 million that will yield 370 housing units, of which 170 will be affordable units.

“These six developments not only bring much-needed affordable housing to the city and get construction workers earning a paycheck, but they also demonstrate the wide range of ways that the City creates affordable housing,” said Donald Rencher, director of Detroit’s Housing & Revitalization Department, in a released statement.

As the reopening goes forward, people like Greg Bowens want to make sure black-owned construction companies continue to be included in development opportunities when the construction industry boom regains its pre-COVID-19 momentum.

“The struggle continues,” said Bowens, a spokesperson for the Detroit Coalition for Economic Inclusion. “How do black construction companies participate in the economic boom of construction and development?”

Bowens hopes the answer will be inclusion. Particularly when it comes to black-owned construction companies being named general contractors on development projects – putting them in charge of the entire project.

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