Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium—the most expensive NFL venue in U.S. history—was slated to debut at the end of July with a trio of Taylor Swift shows. The spread of COVID-19 made it increasingly unlikely that those performances would take place (Swift officially canceled all 2020 tour dates last Friday), but construction has barreled on—even as two workers on the site were recently reported to have tested positive for the virus. The situation has created a predicament for construction workers on this and other projects: Do they put job security ahead of their personal health concerns?
In March, Governor Gavin Newsom and politicians across California unequivocally declared that most types of construction are essential business. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s spokesperson echoed him in a statement asserting that “construction is essential to the economy.” Inglewood Mayor James Butts concurred that SoFi Stadium, which will host both the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers beginning later this year (potentially without fans in the stands), is critical infrastructure. Developers are a formidable force and that means building is not likely to slow down anytime soon, especially when big bucks have been invested in projects like the Lucas Museum, the much-maligned LACMA redesign, and various residential projects across town.
Like service industry and other working-class professions suddenly foregrounded as “essential,” construction workers find themselves at a moment of unique vulnerability. Cliff Smith, business manager of the Roofers Union Local 36 that has been working the SoFi site, says that construction is already a precarious livelihood. “It’s a gig occupation,” he explains by phone. “That’s basically what the building and construction trades are. There’s not a fixed work schedule. There’s no guarantee there’s another job after this. You work yourself out of a job. You hope you line up another project.”
On top of that, many construction workers rely on their union for healthcare, so the threat of losing work is multiplied. “If the project stops and the hours are reduced,” Smith continues, “your hours and contributions into your health and welfare are not going to continue.” So even a slowdown in work can mean lost health insurance, lost housing, or worse.
When reports of COVID-19 at the SoFi site came out in the past weeks, the workers did not take it lightly, and “there was a great deal of scrutiny,” says Smith. “The city had inspectors and media and all the different trades had representatives who reported to the site to monitor, make sure the bathrooms are maintained, the hand-washing stations are well kept, an opportunity to maintain cleanliness, and that all the practices are being adhered to. And from most reports from my workers, they are.” Reps for SoFi Stadium did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Working through a pandemic just compounds the cruelty of being a construction worker in a city like L.A., where the increasingly untenable cost of housing means that many are agents of their own displacement from pricey urban areas. It’s a paradox Smith understands all too well. “We’re left to the mercy of the system of capitalism and the profit motives of the people making the decisions,” Smith admits. “If they see there is more profit to build market or luxury rate housing, that’s the housing my members are going to have to work on to put food on the table. But we’re not going to be able to live in the units that we’ve put the work into building. Our labor is being put into someone else’s benefit.”
But the outlook for construction workers and other “essential” workers isn’t totally bleak. If nothing else, union leaders like Smith hope that the pandemic provides a leverage point for labor.
“When the crisis happens, we’re put into a situation to risk our personal safety to meet [the obligations of people who’ve scheduled] concerts and football games,” he says. “Entertainment and sports are wonderful and we enjoy those things. The builders who build those need to be in control of who benefits. This is our opportunity. We have to seize it.”
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