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Construction workers feel the crunch

By Katy Savage

If you want to make renovations to your home or are planning to build a new house, you might have to wait. Some local construction companies are booked for the next two years.

“We’ve been busier than we’ve been in the past five years,” said Joe Poston, an owner of Wright Construction in Mt. Holly.

He said his company is currently working on a mix of projects, including major renovations, additions and new builds.

Poston said a rise in the number of people moving to the state, as well as projects that were pushed back from the Covid-19 shut-down, combined with a labor shortage, has put an unprecedented demand on construction.

Colby & Tobiason in Woodstock, which focuses on high-end residential homes, is booked for the next two years for the first time in the company’s 48-year history.

“We’ve never had to use those words, we’ve always been able to hire,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Colby & Tobiason has 18 employees and is currently hiring for all positions.

“We’re all shorthanded,” the spokesperson said. “If someone is readily available, ask why.”

Most people haven’t been deterred by the cost of lumber or materials, either. 

Prices on lumber and plywood doubled between June 2020 and June 2021, while steel mill products increased 88% in that time, copper and brass increased 61%, and gypsum products 18%.

“We’ve had people moving to the area who want to make changes to their house,” the Colby & Tobiason spokesperson said. “Those people are going ahead with smaller projects.” 

Commercial construction companies are also busier than ever. 

Joseph Casella, the owner of Casella Construction in Rutland, said part of the problem is the wait time for materials. Casella has had to change his business model. He now has to plan months ahead for materials he used to be able to get within days.

“It’s been busier because the things that weren’t a problem are things you need to think about and plan for,” he said.

Casella said he used to get 1,000 feet of pipe for projects in two days. “Now you have to wait three months for it,” he said.

Casella Construction is working on a water line replacement project in Bennington, a landfill construction project in Coventry, and also utility work.

“Everybody’s still catching up,” Casella said. “A year later, all the outfall from that big pause in the economy has really started to take effect with materials and shortages and equipment. We have really long lead times or are not able to get [materials] at all.”

Construction sites across Vermont halted work in March 2020 as part of the state of emergency declaration.

Matt Musgrave, the deputy executive vice president of Associated General Contractors of Vermont, said Vermont was one of the only states in the country where construction workers weren’t considered “essential” during the pandemic. Musgrave said he worked to get construction back as quickly as possible last year. The association assembled a Covid-19 task force, using experience from the SARS outbreak.

“There was a whole manual to stop the spread of contagious diseases already,” Musgrave said.

The AGC also hosted a 2-hour virtual, interactive workshop about Covid-19 safety.

“We didn’t have a hard time getting our people back to work,” Musgrave said.

He said construction workers are used to following protocols.

“They’re hanging off the edge of buildings, they’re in trenches where there may be hazardous chemicals,” Musgrave said. “They’re working with equipment that can kill them. Covid is just another protocol.”

The influx of federal stimulus funds has also increased demand for construction.

Musgrave anticipated the construction industry would grow by as much as 30% over the next few years.

Seth Shaw of Goodro Lumber in Killington said construction picked up even before the pandemic. He said the supply chain is better than it was last year, but prices are still high and contractors are feeling the pressure.

“Every contractor I know is swamped,” Shaw said. 

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