At contractors group, canceled meetings and anxious members

When the first cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania were announced March 6, schools and businesses were open. 

A holiday photo of the Keystone Contractors Association staff, from left: Seth Kohr, safety director; Jon O’Brien, executive director; Melody O’Brien, office manager. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

But as the virus spread over the next week, the Keystone Contractors Association decided to cancel a legislative reception scheduled for March 16 at the Hilton Harrisburg, said Jon O’Brien, executive director of the association, which has about 100 members statewide.

Schools closed in Pennsylvania the same day, and the association’s three-person staff began working from home — along with thousands of other people hoping to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Central Pennsylvania.

The staff had a test run last spring when construction closed the parking garage they had been using for their office at 20 Erford Road in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County.

O’Brien said he worked from home about half of the four months of construction, so it has not been that big of an adjustment. He and his staff keep in touch via phone, text and email, and make sure they are in the loop on emails with association members.

“Constant communication is what I’m preaching,” O’Brien said.

The association has made other adjustments, too. It held a March 17 board meeting virtually instead of in person, O’Brien said. It was difficult enough to conduct business on a screen, but many of the 20 or so participants were preoccupied with the health and safety of their employees and families.

“We’re still trying to operate, but it’s in the back of everyone’s mind,” O’Brien said Friday as he was dealing with the latest bombshell.

The previous evening, Gov. Tom Wolf had ordered all “non-life-sustaining”  businesses to close. In the hours after the order, O’Brien fielded dozens of questions from contractors, mostly centered on health care-related construction. He forwarded the questions to an email address provided by the state.

It’s not just large projects like the Penn State Health Hampden Medical Center under construction in Cumberland County, O’Brien said. Contractors also had been active on renovation and fit-out projects inside existing hospitals.

“These are serious, intense projects that greatly benefit the commonwealth,” he said.

By Saturday, Wolf had clarified his initial order, and health care construction could resume. Normal life has not.

O’Brien has a home office but when he needed to send a letter with the official association letterhead, he realized he didn’t have any.

He said he cobbled something together on Word and made a mental note to pick up letterhead next time he visited the office. He travels every other day from his Dillsburg-area home to pick up the association’s mail.

Most of the association’s members have their office staff working from home, as well. They also  are trying to guide idle field employees through the unemployment compensation process, and O’Brien has been distributing all the information he can. 

“The more information we can get to laid-off workers to help them in this process, it helps everyone in the long run,” he said, noting that many workers have had trouble getting through to state offices by phone.

The other question on everyone’s mind, he said, is how long the disruption will last.

As for himself, O’Brien and his family go outside and take walks around their neighborhood as often as they can. He and his wife, Melody, have three daughters, in high school, middle school and kindergarten.

Still, it’s impossible to ward off the feelings that are coursing through everyone who is sticking close to home

“We’re getting a little stir crazy,” O’Brien said.

By Joel Berg, editor of BizNewsPA

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