How are Canadian electrical contractors being impacted by COVID-19?
By Kavita Sabharwal-Chomiuk
By Kavita Sabharwal-Chomiuk
May 9, 2020 – Most provinces across Canada have deemed skilled trades as essential services as COVID-19 continues to impact the world. In Ontario, the government has gone even farther, announcing that essential construction projects, such as healthcare infrastructure, are set to operate 24 hours per day in order to accelerate builds, while also providing employers with the ability to stagger shifts and socially distance employees.
However, private electrical contractors across the country are still facing a slowdown in work. In Quebec, for example, allowable electrical work is limited to emergency services only. Housing construction that is set to be delivered before July 31 is also authorized to continue, effective April 20, 2020, but other projects will be delayed.
Impacts to the electrical industry
The list of essential services in all provinces is becoming smaller as more stringent lockdown procedures are put into place, leaving a smaller pool of electrical work, notes Stephen Sell, president of the Ontario Electrical League (OEL).
“OEL contractors have seen a significant reduction in their work due to reduced access to work sites or work sites being shut down,” he says. “With the province reducing the essential business list, there are more sites being closed and less work for our members. Small electrical contractors are the most impacted by the closure of sites.”
Graeme Aitken, executive director of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO), notes that contractors are experiencing many of the same impacts as others across the country, such as reduced opportunities for work, supply chain difficulties, labour questions and general uncertainty, but says that there are some challenges unique to the industry, as well.
“We are also experiencing a significant reduction in productivity, increased costs related to PPE and other COVID 19-related contingencies and, until the change to the Emergency Order by the Province’s Attorney General, cash-flow issues as a result of the suspension of limitation periods, expectations to keep schedules notwithstanding these substantial negative impacts of the pandemic, uncertainty with respect to future projects and the manner in which to bid/perform future projects, among others,” he says.
This slowdown in work is resulting in layoffs, jobs being delayed and extra precautions on jobs currently underway in Saskatchewan, says Lyle McMillan, project manager at Active Electric Ltd. However, he notes that he supports the government’s decision. “I think the government made a tough yet informed decision based off health expert guidelines.”
Terry Barnett, provincial president of the Electrical Contractors Association of Alberta (ECAA), adds, “the work in the province has almost come to a stop, businesses are closed and homeowners are reluctant to let a serviceperson in their home.” He also notes that the jobs that are still available can be more difficult to complete, due to the safety precautions that are currently in place.
At the moment, David Ellis, interim executive director of the Electrical Contractors Association of New Brunswick (ECANB), says commercial and Industrial construction has, for the most part, continued, but on a slower basis, with delays in work for NB Power and Irving Oil. “To the extent work continues, the electrical portion obviously remains essential,” he says.
Aitken cautions of the costs that will accrue as projects sit idle or are delayed, including financing, insurance, bonding and equipment rentals, none of which were anticipated when the projects were bid.
“There will have to be a further discussion on how they will be addressed so that long-term impacts are negated or minimized. Potentially the first part of the solution is legislation or a regulation that exempts contractors and subcontractors from liability for delays caused by the pandemic,” says Aitken.
“The second part of the solution is likely giving relief to construction owners. Owners are our customers. We will need construction owners to be in good economic health so construction can bounce back after the crisis has passed. Our industry must address the challenges ahead in a comprehensive, coordinated manner. And, our governments need to be involved to assist in assuring there is a healthy construction industry moving forward.”
The industry landscape post-COVID-19
To shore up business while it’s slow at the moment, Ellis says contractors are bidding on available opportunities as aggressively as possible. The same can be said of Alberta contractors, who Barnett says are calling regular customers and keeping apprised of any future bids.
Post-COVID-19, Sell worries about the state of the industry, noting that without financial assistance from the government, many smaller businesses may not survive. “This will change the electrical landscape,” he predicts.
Barnett believes some Alberta contractors may face the same fate, as Alberta was already impacted by the slowdown in the oil and gas sector, prior to COVID-19.
“If the return to normal work comes by July, the long-term impact should be minimal other than an increased awareness of the inherent uncertainty of our business and the need to prepare as much as possible for every eventuality,” says Ellis. “If the return takes longer, it is possible that some businesses may fail. Given the highly competitive nature of construction in New Brunswick and the fact most of our members have been in business for many years, we are cautiously optimistic our members are strong enough to weather this storm.”
Planning for the future
As contractors remain housebound, Barnett says that ECAA members are using this opportunity to brush up on their safety skills. “We take any online training we need when it is slow,” he says. “Most of the training is safety related.” ECAA even offered their first Professional Electrical Contractor (PEC) course through Skype in April.
In Ontario, Sell says a small percentage of contractors are looking to complete online training during this time, but finds that this is more the case with larger companies, as smaller contractors may not be able to afford the extra expenses at this time.
According to Aitken, ECAO members are focused on preparing for the “new normal” following this pandemic. “The bulk of what we are seeing is training that relates to COVID-19, anticipating a second or third wave, and coming out of this stronger and more prepared as an electrical contractor,” he says.
Some contractors that are still on the job are worried about contracting COVID-19 while at the workplace. Sell notes that “the social distancing requirement affects different workers in different ways. Workers with young families or caring for elderly parents are more reluctant to continue working due to fear of infection.”
“Calls from individual workers to WorkSafeNB seeking guidance have increased dramatically,” adds Ellis. “In most cases, WorkSafeNB has been referring anxious workers back to their employers.”
Electrical workers employed by ECAO members are themselves members of the IBEW, says Aitken. “Where there may be fear, we work with the IBEW-CCO to ensure that these fears are thoroughly investigated and dealt with. Further, ECAO fully supports the recommendation of the IBEW-CCO to their members that workers should not be put into a position to perform at a site that they do not feel has the proper COVID-19 (and, of course, all health and safety) protection.”
As for how electrical contractors in New Brunswick are faring emotionally, Ellis says most of the ECANB’s members seem to be concerned, but not overly frightened for the short term, and are cautiously optimistic for the longer run. Meanwhile, in Alberta, Barnett says members are uneasy because they’re unsure how long the halt to business will last.
Although the turn of events related to COVID-19 have been shocking, to say the least, Aitken presents a positive message for the future, one that all contractors can surely relate to.
“I have not been associated with a group as strong, practical, caring and adaptable as the ECAO. Yes, they are facing a threat. However, like all of the threats faced in the seven decades of this association, I am confident that our community will come out of the pandemic even stronger, more united and with greater resolve than when we entered this time,” he says. “As a very resilient community, our members, labour partners and industry partners are collectively ‘rolling up our sleeves’. We’re resolved, not resigned.”
“Long term, there is work on the other side of this,” McMillan adds. “We just need to get through it safely.”
This article—along with other great content—appears in the May 2020 edition of Electrical Business Magazine.