From job to job to job, a building anxiety
Work spotty, worry rife in construction trades
After years of rampant unemployment, the Boston area construction industry is finally showing signs of life. But for ironworker Chris Deane, the work arrives in fits and starts and is so fleeting it’s hardly enough to live on.
One day. Four weeks. Then he takes up an all too-familiar routine: waiting days on end to be summoned for another job.
“Everybody says, ‘The work is coming, the work is coming,’ but I can’t call the mortgage company and say, ‘Oh, the work’s coming,’ ’’ said Deane, 35, of South Boston, whose current job ends in a week.
Although a number of major projects in the region have gotten underway, Deane’s frustration is emblematic of the unpredictable nature of the current recovery. The recent stock market slide suggests that what little momentum the economy has may soon be choked off, as builders and funders, fearing another recession, adopt a wait-and-see stance on construction.
Even before recession fears began to rise again, the building sector was expected to be in retreat for the remainder of the year. In its most recent semiannual forecast issued in late July, the American Institute of Architects predicted construction spending will decline by 5.6 percent in the second half of 2011, largely due to continued reluctance by lenders to finance projects.
The industry has added just 4,200 jobs in Massachusetts over the past year, and a similar increase is expected in the coming months, based on the number of projects getting underway. But that will still leave the industry about 20,000 jobs shy of the 136,000 workers that marked its most recent high point. The industry has experienced similarly modest gains throughout the country.
Barry Beaudoin was hired onto one of the big projects that broke ground recently - the Fan Pier complex on the South Boston waterfront. Over the last year the 55-year-old pile driver from Braintree was lucky if he worked one week a month. His income was cut by more than half to just $32,000 - and that included unemployment benefits.
But after draining his savings to pay his mortgage and son’s college tuition, Beaudoin said, the recent spate of steady work has merely kept him from falling further behind on his finances, rather than getting ahead.
“My bills are paid up to date, and I’m basically broke,’’ Beaudoin said. “I’m working week to week, and I’m not usually like that. Right now if I lose a couple of weeks, I’m in the hole.’’
The construction industry is much more bleak than when he started in the early 1970s. In his first 15 years Beaudoin was laid off just twice. He will finish up a two-month job at Fan Pier next week. Then it will be three weeks of unemployment before he heads out to a three-week job at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston.
While he believes he’ll find other jobs, Beaudoin said the future will never be as certain as it once was.
“Right now we all have to worry about our future,’’ he said.
Tim Fraser, president and cofounder of Commonwealth Resources Inc., a recruiting agency for the construction industry, said uncertainty remains the rule in the business.
“There’s really no sense of consistency to it, and you end up sitting on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s next,’’ he said.
Construction workers say they knew going in that their chosen trade was subject to bouts of idleness, but nothing like what they have experienced in the last three years. Between February 2008 and December 2010, the industry shed 32,000 jobs, or about 24 percent of its workforce across the state.
Now, here’s what passes for improvement: At the Iron Workers Local 7 Union in South Boston, only 40 percent of its 3,500 members are without jobs, down from as much as 60 percent two years ago. At the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, unemployment is down to about 25 percent, from above 30 percent.
“The worst is over, but the worst is still pretty bad,’’ said Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the carpenters union. “An honest portrayal of what’s going on includes a recognition that it’s been devastating for the last few years and it’s going to take a while to recover from the human tragedy of this recession.’’
Union construction workers find jobs in different ways. Carpenters rely on business managers at the union halls - liaisons between workers and companies - to help find jobs, while ironworkers, for example, are allowed to go out to job sites and ask for work directly. Others have greater success through networking.
But some, like Vionet Montano, say finding work any way is tough.
She worked two days all of last year, forcing her to live off food stamps, family loans, and IOUS to her landlord. A member of the carpenters’ union, Montano found a meager supplement by working part time at a bar for $50 a week.
But in June her business manager got her a three-week job pouring concrete at a project in Allston. She was hoping the gig would help pay her bills, but the work stalled, and in one week she worked only two days.
So she did something out of the ordinary: leaving a job before it’s over, to take another, more-secure opportunity - a yearlong stint building a student center for Boston University.
“I need to pay my bills,’’ Montano said. “I have dreams and expectations, and at 33 years old, I’m not getting any younger.’’
There have been a number of large construction projects launched in the past few months, including the massive new building for Vertex Pharmaceuticals at Fan Pier and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.’s $300 million office tower in the Back Bay. Local labor leaders are hopeful that many smaller developments will spring up soon after the major projects get underway.
Deane, the ironworker from South Boston, took jobs as far away as Brooklyn and Vermont earlier this year to provide for his family. But he doesn’t think he has to do that much longer.
Unfortunately, construction always comes in waves.
His current gig doing structural work at the Westwood library will probably end in a week. The short stint isn’t enough to banish the feeling of worry over his next job.
“It’s just the way it goes,’’ he said.
Taryn Luna can be reached at email@example.com.