Contractor Perspective: Lambert Tile and Stone, Eagle, Colo.

Dan and Elizabeth Lambert of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Lambert Tile and Stone in Eagle, Colo., share their experiences and struggles with work during the time of COVID-19.

Dan and Elizabeth Lambert of NTCA Five-Star Contractor
Lambert Tile and Stone in their Eagle, Colo. showroom

2020 has definitely been a different year than we had planned for. We operate our tile installation business in the mountains of Colorado. We were one of the first counties in Colorado to go into a Stay at Home order in early March because some of the first cases of COVID-19 were traced to our international guests that came for the ski season in the Vail area. With that came the unknown on how our jobs would be affected.

Construction turned out to be an essential job in Colorado, so we were able to follow our county guidelines and have up to 10 people working on a job site. Luckily, we were on a new construction residential project and each of our employees could work in a separate area and have their own tools. There was no pressure by any builder to require anyone who felt comfortable to stay on the job. Schedules were thrown out the window. We had a few of our employees out sick, which of course caused us to worry about how we would pay the bills. When they returned, we started them out slowly on projects they could be on by themselves, or we had them do creative work like cleaning and inventorying our warehouse. We started to have a few jobs cancel not just because of the virus, but because of the fluctuation in the stock market. We did qualify for the PPP program which took away some of the stress of the unknown.

Another issue we had was finding masks and sanitation products for our employees to feel safe on the job site. This required calling everyone we knew and searching the Internet in order to find a few things here and there.

As a business owner, we had to think differently about the way we have operated for the last 20 years. We participated in multiple Zoom Meetings and webinars in order to use our down time to either educate ourselves or stay in contact with our manufacturers and distributors. We also learned about all the new tile lines coming up through Zoom and webinars since Coverings was not able to take place this year.

We also encountered a disruption in the tile supply chain. Tile from Italy was taking way longer than the normal 12-week lead time, which forced us to reselect tile on multiple jobs.

Our phones have actually been ringing off the hook this past month with homeowners who have been home for months and would now like to upgrade their bathrooms. In fact, Lambert Tile and Stone is currently looking for a high-end residential tile installer/employee to join our team in the beautiful mountains of Colorado. So, if anyone is thinking of relocating please send us an email at [email protected]  Our employees were sometimes spoiled on the jobs for homeowners — one homeowner made them some kind of homemade treat each day (we think our employees wanted that job to last forever). We have been fortunate that a few of our jobs are exterior installations, which made our employees feel more comfortable by working outdoors.

One positive thing we observed through the months is that everyone treated each other with more kindness and compassion. We are all in this together. Our silver lining was all the time we spent with immediate family, which forced us to look at our work/life balance and truly look around and see the amazing place we live and work, and to help those in our mountain community. 

Contractor Perspective: Gianna Vallefuoco, Vallefuoco Contractors, LLC, Rockville, MD

Gianna Vallefuoco

COVID-19 has touched almost all facets of our lives. As a family business owner, the pandemic hit me with instant fear for the survival of our tile installation company. I wondered how my husband and I would meet payroll and overhead costs, keep our installers and office manager working, feed our family, keep our home, and get our three kids through college. All these mundane pre-pandemic assumptions quickly eroded into fragile aspirations that were no longer a given. Then I considered the heavier stuff; the possibility of sickness or even death from this virus touching our lives. I’ve been taking a lot of deep breaths.

The pandemic has not only made me question the stability of our company, but all aspects of our life; work, family, community. In March, our installations, like those of our colleagues, began to dwindle due to client fears and lack of social distancing space on job sites. I began working exclusively from home, learning to make tile selections with clients and vendors remotely. Within the first week of virtual project meetings, I noticed a subtle but palpable transformation in our business interactions. People wanted dialogue. And I don’t mean chit chat.

Work communication evolved from polite, strategic conversations to compassionate, intimate discussions about our livelihoods, families, fears and struggles. Over the last three months, I’ve been fortunate enough to share and hear very heartfelt stories with clients, vendors, installers, superintendents, and even insurance agents about the new normals of 2020. No small talk. People want to unveil the heavy stuff, the reality we’re all experiencing. They want to talk about their loved ones at high risk, their unlived vacations and uncelebrated graduations and weddings. People want to feel connection, even while at work.

Since the pandemic, I’ve shared in the tears of three colleagues, and intensely belly-laughed with at least a dozen more. Life is emotional right now. News outlets and bank statements readily remind us of our fears, but fear isn’t the great consequence of 2020. I think it’s empathy. Perhaps it’s the solidarity of being stuck in home confinement, or the uncertainty of our careers, health, and futures. Whatever the reason, people clearly need connection. My work role has adapted to that.

Our business, like many across the globe, has been forced to pivot quickly. Our income and workload since March has been highly inconsistent. This pandemic has made us reevaluate our priorities. I started writing our Intentional Spaces blog last year to educate clients about tile selections and layouts for their new spaces. Client needs since the pandemic immediately shifted the blog focus from designing physical spaces to creating meaningful space in our homes and hearts. My job title has transformed from Tile Designer to Mindfulness Mentor.

This sounds like a pretty big jump, but my training as a mindfulness teacher has always seeped into our tile installation business. A gratitude jar has adorned our cozy tile office for many years, enticing all who enter to jot down something for which they feel grateful, and drop it in the jar. We have poignant little scribbles from office staff, neighbors, vendors, and even delivery drivers. The gratitude messages range from things like “grateful for my daily walks” or “nobody cursed at me yet today” to “my family is healthy” and “I have a home.” I’ve always felt that mindfulness belongs in the workplace. The pandemic has verified that.  

My recent discussions with tile industry colleagues have propelled the teaching of mindfulness to the top of my list of job duties. Many industry partners, who are also longtime friends, are living in a state of unsustainable stress. Some have just lost jobs or taken pay cuts. Tile showroom owners have expressed how heavily weighted they are by the guilt of letting employees go and the fear of losing their businesses. This emotional tension is taking its toll on us, revealing a dire need to find resilience.

For those not familiar with the term, mindfulness is the act of being present, with compassion and curiosity, and without judgment. Mindfulness encompasses many practices for navigating life’s curve balls like breath techniques, meditation, focused attention, gratitude, and abundant others.

During the last couple months, amidst designing backsplash frames around pot-fillers, and gratefully signing lien releases, I’ve been teaching mindfulness. I’ve lead guided meditations with colleagues and community groups, teaching how to reduce stress, decrease anxiety, observe and control thoughts and stress responses, and find acceptance in difficult situations. I’ve started planning a mindfulness retreat in Tuscany with fellow women business owners. I’ve led meditation groups. These reactions may not be your typical “pandemic pivot” for a tile contractor, but they’ve allowed our business to forge its path in the new normal. We’re all in this together. In uncertainty. In change. In resilience.

COVID-19 Contractor Perspective: James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Co.

James woelfel artcraft talks about his company and covid
James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Company, Mesa, Ariz.

I am overwhelmed, I am sure all tile contractors feel this way. I have noticed the last couple of weeks that I am depressed. Some of my personal history may help to explain where I am coming from.

When I was pursuing professional golf, I had a lot of issues concentrating on the golf course and not getting bogged down in what I perceived as infinite details when preparing to hit a shot. These details were interfering with my concentration during the round. I decided to seek help with a psychologist, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Eventually I could not overcome my concentration issues and gave up on a professional golf career.

I now pursue the tile profession with the same abandon as I did my golf career. One of the things the psychologist told me is that anxiety breeds depression.I have always been anxious but never like this, combined with the stress this job brings, the anxiety has really put me on edge. I consider myself a leader in this industry and put pressure on myself to lead.

Combining all of these things — plus a pandemic — has led me to the state of mind I am feeling now. I am depressed; the anxiety of not knowing is driving most of this feeling. I am always thinking 6-12 months ahead, be it scheduling, finances, bidding and procuring work, or making sure I have the right people in the right positions. Usually my thoughts and actions are usually correct when forecasting, but now I have no idea what is going to happen.

As I write this I am forcing myself to take stock of the positives in my life. I have a wonderful and loving wife who is the bedrock foundation that our family is built upon. My son fights every day for his place in the world; he has overcome so much. I need to stop thinking that his issues are a negative and realize his fight is a positive for him and for us. All of my family is healthy, this is really great news. My friends are healthy and yet they too are concerned. It is impossible to always be happy; we are all human and have faults. I have plenty to keep me busy.

I am sure everyone out there in the world feels these issues. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Probably, but I really think this is the time that we need to take care of our mental health. To honestly share our feelings with our spouses, our partners our friends and even a mental health professional is imperative right now.

We have never experienced a pandemic in our lifetime. Two months of isolation has bred bad thoughts in my mind. I am sharing this selfishly to get my thoughts out into the world to ease the stress on my mind. I wish I had more tools in my mental toolbox to deal with these thoughts. I don’t. I am trying to work through my mental state with my family and friends, and I am hoping to clear my mind a little.

I was brought up with the “John Wayne” mentality: get it done, no time to feel sorry for yourself, be tough, show no emotion. This mentality is not working right now. If any of you feel the same way I would encourage you to talk about your feelings or thoughts with family, friends or a professional.  I am trying; how about you?  How we rebound mentally from this pandemic in my opinion, is what will guide us to success or lead us into failure. 

COVID Contractor Perspective: Ken Ballin, Skyro Floors

Ken Ballin, Skyro Floors, West Creek, N.J.

NTCA member Ken Ballin, CTI #1392, CFI #13604 of Skyro Floors in West Creek, N.J., shares his experience and his thoughts about life and work during the time of coronavirus.

I remember hearing about [coronavirus] and not thinking much about it. I remember hearing more and more about it and thinking about other times that I’ve heard similar stories in years passed.

I remember coming home from Surfaces, going to soccer practice with my daughter, and as we were wrapping up I let out a single cough. I looked up and said “oh no” out loud, because I knew it felt funny. That’s the sickest I’ve been in a long time, sick enough to actually go to the doctor, and sick enough to keep me from going to work for a couple days. In the 12 years I’ve been in business I’ve never missed a day. Never. Now that was before they were testing for anything besides the regular run-of-the mill influenza, but for me to miss work, even for just those two days, has stuck in my mind since.

I can’t imagine what people are going through who’ve actually been out of work since the lockdowns started. I know what it’s like not to be able to afford the same luxuries as others. I know what it’s like to wonder what you’re going to do after you finish the job you’re on because nothing else has come through yet. I also know what it’s like to use a bad situation to my advantage and come out on top and that’s exactly what I did when I lost my biggest contract a few years back and I had all my eggs in one basket.

If the current situation has taught us nothing else as business owners it’s the need to diversify your customer base. If all I was doing at the time of the shut down was residential remodel then I would be sitting home with nothing to do, right back in the same situation I was in a few years back. I’ve been blessed, or lucky — or maybe a combination of the two — enough to be working entirely in unoccupied second and third homes. It’s been mostly new construction with a local builder I’ve developed a very good relationship with and for homeowners still staying at their primary residence.

Having the ability to not limit myself to one kind of installation has kept me working, without needing to take advantage of any of the loans currently being offered to business owners, albeit by myself without any help — but let’s be honest, with social media none of us are really alone. There’s always a voice out there happy to tell us that the first tile should have been 1/8″ to the left.

If you’re currently out of work, or even if you’re working but want to change up your game a bit, diversify your customer base. There are always high-paying jobs out there. You just have to figure out where to look. Be smart. Be safe. This too shall pass.

COVID Contractor Perspective: Greg Twarog, owner, Unique 2 LLC; NTCA Ambassador, CTI #1302

man in a mask and goggles

People who are not from a major city are asking what it’s like here right now, in the Chicago Southwest suburbs. I just left a project walk-through on W. Huron St.,  and in a word —  desolate. Even all of the buildings, stores, parks and streets  — they are all virtually empty. The streets, for the most part, are always busy here, so the fact that they are completely void of cars, bikes, people running, walking pets, delivering packages and the general hustle and bustle to and from work — it’s just plain odd. The irony is that on May 1, Friday morning, the residential high-rise garage is filled with cars. Later today, it was announced that Illinois would lift some of their mandates on some businesses soon, but the lasting effects will be felt for many years to come.

So what does all this mean when I’m physically going to measure a project and sell my company’s products and services?  I’ve decided to be empathetic to customers and to the reason our Great City remains like this since it was locked down just after St. Patrick’s day on March 21st. After all, I really don’t know the clients or their families, their lifestyles or political philosophies. I do my best to stay professional while keeping conversation to a minimum during this stressful time.

I ask how they and their family’s health are doing, but it’s not just casual conversation any more. If they say “all is good,” I move into the order of business, and the details as I always have. I explain our process, products used and professional background that I may not have covered in our first introductions on the phone or in an email.

If they are not well, I explain the installation start date will be dependent on everyone’s clear test results. If one of our crew calls off, a replacement will step in to finish the install or a return date will be made based on cleared results on our end. 

The rest of the process is pretty much intact as before, except I explain that we like to be the only trade scheduled for the day on their project. We ask to have minimal contact throughout the day now. For prevention we wear masks or respirators, face shields or goggles and hearing protection. We’ve already adopted PPE into daily use to combat exposure to silica dust. Now we also include a job site HEPA Air Scrubber. Hand sanitizer and general hygiene have always been  — and remain encouraged  — for our company. Clients and subcontractors working with us have been receptive to these logical changes, if not totally accepting of the explanations about the changes in both our process and daily company routines.

Daily prospecting for new business has been uniquely different since COVID-19. First and foremost, the phone has been quieter; also I visit fewer places daily so I don’t have the same level of contact with people currently. For almost three decades of business in this industry, I’ve generated a great deal of profitable contracts and leads through simple contact with people, and sharing information about myself and what services I provide. That personal contact is now all but eliminated. I can’t hand out a business card, offer a simple facial gesture like a reassuring smile or a firm handshake upon first meeting someone or closing a business deal. So, it’s challenging and awkward to work around.  These fundamentals for business success have been stripped away by the pandemic, government mandates and the need to preserve my health  — as well as everyone else’s health I come into contact with — along with their friends and family they live with.

I decided early on to go back to my roots and just call, text, and video call friends, clients, peers –everyone — to see how they have been doing healthwise, and in business. I also ask for their perspectives on how they have been adjusting to their daily local changes so we can compare notes on the subject. I’ve learned a lot in these conversations and extended them into my social media community. For instance, I learned in these conversations of the need for masks and face shields for several area hospitals. Through my contacts, I was able to supply some face shields. And a mosaic artist, Betsy Rocket of Vida VaVoom in Fort Wayne, Ind., answered my Facebook request for anyone who could help make masks with the fact that she is also a seamstress. She rose to the occasion and supplied about 100 much-needed masks (Ed. Note: Rocket is willing to make masks for anyone in need of cloth masks. Contact her at 260-579-8114).

This made me realize that some of these changes in our current culture are almost necessary. I feel early site visits are not really as essential now that we have such high-quality video and picture capabilities right on our phones. Based on this new kind of data sharing and discovery phase with the client, we can form preliminary budgets and soft terms. As a result, I feel these new efforts save me valuable company resources as well as time that can be spent in other more profitable ways. 

Paradigm shifts are not a bad thing but are not always easy for everyone to adjust to. Like it or not, the way we have done business until now has been forever changed by social distancing precautions we’ve needed to take in this pandemic. Meeting clients can happen through social media contact or contractor apps on our phones like Linkedin, Alignable or TraLaMa.

As I touched on earlier, I believe sharing pre-qualifying questions in context of the project scope, timelines and budgets along with preliminary measurements/prints are imperative before any on-site visits are made. I provide benchmark updates given by video recordings or virtual walkthroughs instead of in person to limit contact. Payments are mostly being processed by electronic transactions (instantly) by bank-to-bank transfers or money processing apps like PayPal, Cash App or Venmo instead of meeting in person for cash, checks or Square to change hands.

It’s 2020, so for the most part, I expected these futuristic technologies and safety precautions. I just wish we had the flying cars, personal jet packs and holographic television! I know — wishful thinking. Hey we do have Zoom though!

Be healthy and live well everyone!

COVID Contractor Perspective: Martin Brookes, Heritage Marble & Tile, Inc.

Martin Brookes, President of Heritage Marble & Tile, Inc., an NTCA Five-Star Contractor member

On March 16th, 2020 our tile world changed. In Mill Valley, Calif., we went from being overwhelmed with work in a vibrant economy with the labor shortage as our biggest challenge  — to a shelter-in-place order.

I thought I had a grasp on this. I didn’t know the extent of changes that COVID-19 would bring upon us. To prepare, I got jobs stocked with tile and materials,  sent emails to our client base letting them know how we would work responsibly, and had tailgate meetings with my crews daily on the importance of social distancing.

But it soon became quite clear that this situation was going to have far more impact than any of us could have imagined.

The public announcement of government relief available to small businesses added confusion and anxiety. Who would — and who wouldn’t — get financial help to see them through this unknown time period? Uncertainty was an understatement for both the employer and employees.

I thought we could weather the storm with the pre-planning and jobs we had ahead of us. How wrong I was! We worked through the jobs that got stocked ahead of time; then systematically our job sites were closed down. Restrictions got tighter as the local building inspectors teamed with the police to start closing down job sites with the threat of a fine if not in compliance.

I suffered sleepless nights wondering how I was going to be able to ride out the storm, keep my doors open and make sure my hardworking employees could take of their families and pay the bills. I decided that I would pay them to the best of my ability, for the foreseeable future or until all my resources had been exhausted.

I had applied for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) $10k grant and the Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan for payroll and some other expenses, but was not holding my breath on these programs. I bank with a large institution. The initial application program was not easy and changed frequently, so I thought my chances of getting funded would be minimal.

Since I do all my payroll, bookkeeping and timecards through QuickBooks, it was easy for me to pull reports and paperwork.  Forms 940 / 941 were just a click away, and easy to attach to the required paperwork for what seemed to be a remote chance of being funded.

I’m a small business — I mean a real small business; forget the 500 or fewer — we are 7 or fewer. So I thought, “Who really cares whether I survive or not?”

I was assigned a business advisor at my bank and he supplied me with his cell phone, because due to COVID-19 he also was working from home. We talked and he changed my mind on how I though the bank perceived me.  He was friendly, informative and seemed to care. He reassured me my application was in line for funding and I would be getting an email by the end of the week (yeah, right!). A few days later – nothing.  I sent him a polite but assertive email explaining my banking history and loyalty. I also mentioned that I just might have to reconsider my banking choice, after hearing that my peers had been funded from community banks and credit unions.

He again reached out and told me to hang in there because he was hopeful I would be funded by the end of the week. Shortly after, my bank sent a midnight email informing me that we had been funded. I felt a wave of relief knowing I could take care of my employees for at least the next 2.5 months.

Lessons learned

A few things I have learned from this experience to date is that having access to like-minded business owners through NTCA gave me perspective. I learned that the bank does value me and the business I bring them.  And operating my business with professional recordkeeping allowed me to produce the paperwork I needed to justify what I needed to maintain my business.

I’m hopeful we can all learn and grow from this unfortunate situation – though I’m sure we are not even close to realizing how this situation will change the way we do business, not to mention how it will affect our personal lives.  I’m hopeful that others will have the same experience as I did, and can keep their doors open to take care of their hardworking employees.

Yesterday, as part of the Learning Opportunities offered by Coverings Connected, Wally Adamchick, president of Firestarter Speaking and Consulting offered a session on “Acting on the NTCA Culture Survey – Leadership in the Face of COVID-19.” He quoted an article from Fortune magazine that stated that the three key factors in keeping employees engaged is 1) trust in their supervisor 2) pride in the organization and 3) camaraderie with those they work with. I’m hopeful our hardworking employees will remember how loyalty, respect, and genuine caring is helping build a culture that separates our company from run-of-the-mill companies, and that’s why they choose to work for us. It can be an opportunity for all of us to show leadership – and respect  — for workers bring to the party. And in the long run, it can make us an even stronger team.  

Covid Contractor Perspective: James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite Marble & Tile Company

Contractor James Woelfel, Artcraft
James Woelfel of Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Company, an NTCA Five-Star Contractor member

The last six weeks has changed all of our lives. It has changed all of our business practices and our business models.  Some of us tile contractors are fortunate that the construction we are working on is considered an essential service. Commercial construction projects in areas around the country are still moving forward in these strange and unprecedented times. We should consider ourselves fortunate for this work as millions of other people are losing their jobs. At the same time residential tile work has fallen off significantly. How on earth can you prepare for this event? You can’t.

As a commercial tile contractor we developed COVID protocol for our employees a couple of weeks before our general contractors did:  pretty scary that a finish trade can maneuver faster than general contractors but all of us know that the tile trade is far more nimble and forward-thinking than general contractors. We have implemented 100% gloves, masks and eye protection on every one of our jobs. We are practicing social distancing and are making aware to the general contractor if any trades are unaware or ignoring the CDC’s protocol to ensure that our employees are as safe as possible on a job site.

The question that keeps me up at night is even though we are essential, are we really necessary? Are we putting our people in harm’s way? My people are telling me that they feel safer on the job site than they do when going to a grocery store. It is calming but my underlying concern for my employee’s health still weighs heavily on my mind.

How are we as a ceramic tile installation industry going to move forward as the first wave of this virus moves forward? Good business and business practices will see some of us through the next few months. Have you applied for the SBA PPP loan program? Are you thinking on your feet?  What about the residential tile contractor? With work literally stopping, what is your next move? Are you positioned for this massive slow down? What are your contingencies?

These are difficult questions to answer, especially when no one person knows what is going to happen in the next few months. Staying in contact with your customers is key in my opinion. Can you develop safety protocols that you can convey to the homeowner that you are safe and the homeowner will be safe?

Another possibility is trying to find a job with a commercial contractor for a limited time. Going out to see if you can get hired by a commercial contractor may be a bridge to cover costs and bring money home. I know these ideas are simple but it is more important than ever that tile contractors think proactively.

It is comforting in these times that we are considered essential. I have always felt that way. We are helping our country’s economy by continuing our work, but we need to be smart in protecting ourselves, our coworkers, our employees and most important our families. Don’t make poor decisions that put any of these people at risk. Make the necessary decisions and the well-thought-out decisions. Lean on other tile contractors and lean on the NTCA.  I know they are putting out very useful information (visit the NTCA Coronavirus Resource Page on www.tile-assn.com). None of knows everything, but working together, even with a competitor, will help all of us make it through these unusual times.  Please stay safe and healthy.

NTCA contractors sound off on Coronavirus and their businesses

We’ve been reading a lot about legislation being rushed through to address the Coronavirus pandemic and related economic crisis, amidst rumors of work slowdowns and layoffs. But how are our members dealing with the new normal? How are their businesses being affected, how are they keeping safe and healthy and if there is downtime, how are they using it to their best advantage?

The weekend of March 28, TileLetter.com contacted a number of NTCA member contractors to take their pulse on the state of business in the time of Corona.

Dan Welch, Welch Tile & Marble

Working status: green light

All of the NTCA contractors contacted are still working, to various degrees, with residential and construction projects deemed essential. But some areas are cutting back such as Michigan, where Dan Welch of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Welch Tile & Marble admitted that they have ceased in-state operations, except for food plants, and hospitals that are only employing a third of his team.

Chris Walker, David Allen Company

Chris Walker of NTCA Five-Star Contractor David Allen Company said that DAC was told that “as long as there are successful efforts to follow all protocols, construction is considered an essential activity — even in shelter-in-place states – and work will continue.”

For Martin Brookes, of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Heritage Marble &  Tile located in Mill Valley, Calif., right outside San Francisco, his area was one of the first hit by shelter-in-place (SIP) orders, which were vague on which industries could continue operation. Brookes swung into action.

Martin Brookes, Heritage Marble & Tile

“I immediately stocked jobs with tile and setting materials to the best of my ability,” he said. “I was able to implement an infectious disease mitigation strategy with my employees and general contractors. We started to have morning tailgate safety meetings practicing social distancing measures. The conditions we put on our GC’s was that only ourselves (limit 2 man crew) be in the workspace and have access to clean water and hand soap. They all agreed to these conditions and to date it’s worked out well.

“I also created a letter with the current SIP order referenced and check with each county and city to see if it differs from the state,” he added. “The information clearly states the order and has my information on the letter for them to contact. This will hopefully resolve any issues if law enforcement enter a job site. They are also told to have the infectious disease mitigation strategy document with them on the job site and practice good personal hygiene throughout the day.”

John Cox, Cox Tile
Gianna Vallefuoco, Vallefuoco Contractors, LLC

Though contractors are working, for many, phones have virtually stopped ringing and no new work is coming in. “People are in fear of what’s happening,” said John Cox, of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Cox Tile in San Antonio. “They are no different than us, and not spending money unless it is a necessity.”

For others, things are still percolating. “Some jobs are delayed indefinitely due to social distancing concerns by clients, especially in buildings where there are bylaws restricting work,” said Gianna Vallefuoco, of Maryland-based NTCA Five-Star Contractor Vallefuoco Contractors, LLC. “We are definitely slowing down, but some jobs are still being pushed to finish. Our trade clients, like builders and remodelers, are trying to stay busy. We are still bidding many new jobs. We’re staying positive, but realistic.”

Protecting workers

Contractors say their worker safety is top priority. Brookes added, “The most important thing is the health and safety of my employees. They are asked if they feel safe and well protected, and if they are in any doubt about their health and safety they are welcome to stay home. The talk every morning is repetitive but is important to understand how the virus is spread and how to protect against it. It is so far working, but we are in the early stages and we hope through social distancing and isolation measures that the risk will be reduced.”

John Mourelatos, Mourelatos Tile Pro

In Tucson, John Mourelatos of Mourelatos Tile Pro said, “We are only working on remodeling projects where we can isolate our work area from the main part of the house. For example, we are working in a master bathroom project and we can access the area through a master bedroom door. We don’t have to access the main part of the house at all, using a separate bathroom from the homeowners. We are wearing gloves and washing our hands and tools frequently.” 

Walker said that for DC area work, DAC is eliminating crew vans and paying for parking or gas/mileage for out-of-town crews. “Construction  by its nature, is typically in social-distancing mode,” he said. “Superintendent’s offices are essentially their trucks, so those are controlled environments.” He also said that high-touch surfaces are wiped down several times a day, limited unannounced visitors and asked delivery services to leave and pick up packages without signature.

Bradford Denny, Nichols Tile & Terrazzo

Bradford Denny, of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Nichols Tile & Terrazzo Co., Inc., in Joelton, Tenn., said “We have asked everyone to check their temperature daily and stay home at the first signs of not feeling well. To further separate ourselves from one of our clients, we created a negative air space with HEPA filtration unit in our working area and have been sanitizing areas outside of the working area we travel. After finishing for the day, we’ve encouraged employees to return home and remain as isolated as possible.”

At Vallefuoco Contractors,  installers are using gloves and masks, though they are in short supply, and disinfectant. “We are implementing a 6 foot social distance protocol. We are moving toward single man crews for many jobs, especially small jobs,” Vallefuoco said. In the office, desks are separated and workers are at their own work stations. In addition, new technology will allow office staff to address tasks remotely from home. Health is number one, and we are taking this seriously. We need to respect social distancing protocol vehemently. None of us wants to put ourselves, employees, clients, vendors, fellow tradesmen/women, nor their families at risk. We are truly in this together.”  

Dealing with layoffs

New laws designed to provide support for workers and small businesses are creating some hope, confusion and prompting a learning curve as to how to navigate the details.

“This is definitely new territory,” Vallefuoco said. “Our future financial needs and our eligibility for benefits are still unclear, and we are always looking for guidance and insight from those who understand the options. Our goal is to keep employees on payroll for as long as possible, with the hope of riding out this storm with minimal financial consequences to employees.

“As a small business, this is of course a big concern,” she added. “Our main goal is to protect employees from becoming ill. We have specifically instituted measures to keep our employees safe and well, and home if needed. Fortunately, we’re able to provide excellent health insurance. For installers who are subcontractors, we are doing our best to keep them as busy as they desire. By implementing one man crews, we hope to keep people working safely, while respecting social distancing measures.”

Welch said, “The new law that requires people to be laid off and gives them a bonus to be laid off is creating issues. Some workers don’t want to work because they would rather be unemployed and make more money. When the government offers this, it cuts our hands off to be able to handle these essential projects.

“We’re trying to see if overhead can be cut,” he said. “A lot of people are working, but how to do that at a lesser cost? If we are going to lay them off, do we go part time or PTO; we’re not sure yet. We have until Thursday to make that decision.”

Ricky Cox, Memphis Tile & Marble

Denny said, “The uncertainty of their income and livelihood, as well as the pandemic, has given some of our employees justifiable concerns. We have been forced to sit down as a collective (employees and owners) family and consider our responsibilities to the company, our families, our community, our country, our economy, etc. These challenges have seemed to  knot us tighter together.”

And Ricky Cox of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Memphis Tile & Marble added, “I have been keeping up with this last stimulus package and will be applying for the small business loan.  It will cover payroll, rent, and utilities for 8 weeks and won’t have to be repaid.”

Lack of PPE

Early on, masks were one of the elements of personal protective equipment (PPE) in huge demand by the public at large as well as for health care workers who are face-to-face with Coronavirus on a daily basis. This has left the construction industry wanting for dust masks, and respirators that protect against respirable silica. Welch said he hasn’t been able to procure masks for months, though gloves are plentiful.  Mourelatos said that in addition to limited PPE, cleaning supplies are scarce. Cox, at Memphis Tile & Marble, said. “Masks are VERY hard to come by,” he added. “We were low on stock when all this started and had to order online.  Shipment of masks was two weeks out.”

Technology  helps keep business alive

One of the unintended positive consequences of COVID-19 upsetting the apple cart is the blossoming of the use of technology like Facetime, Zoom and more that will surely open up additional opportunities once the crisis has abated. Vallefuoco said, “I’ve been doing tile design and selection meetings with clients and vendors using Zoom platform. Our vendors have been offering great virtual showroom services.” Welch Tile is using the BombBomb video software to create videos and talk directly to staff “with words of affirmation that we are all in this together.”

Helpful resources

In addition to the news and CDC recommendations, contractors are turning to a range of resources to keep abreast of changes in legislation that may affect their businesses and workers, and their health. Welch taps into the .gov websites, and is grateful for webinars on insurance developments his attorney offers. Mourelatos mentioned a COVID-19 Facebook group that LATICRETE’s vice president of sales and marketing Ron Nash established, as well as the NTCA website (www.tile-assn.com) that “has a wealth of resources and links that have been helpful.”

Using your time

For some, since work is not bustling, there is opportunity to channel downtime into useful activities.

Vallefuoco is working from home, and has used the time to get “back on track with things formerly put on the back burner. I’ve been writing our INTENTIONAL SPACES blog , and addressing life during the COVID-19 era as part of it.”

At Welch Tile, work is afoot on a new logo and sales and marketing projects, as well as refining company purpose and values statements.

Finally, some contractors are evaluating priorities and making time to spend with the special people in their lives.  “We, and our team, are spending much more time home with our families,” Vallefuoco said. “This has truly been an unforeseen gift. We are all concerned for our health and our livelihoods, but we continue to look forward and find the positive.”