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Idle Construction Workers See Foundation for Hope in Stimulus Bill
Building Industry Has Shed 900,000 Jobs Nationwide

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

Santiago Castro, his dark brown coat pulled close around him to ward off the pre-dawn chill yesterday, leaned against the brick building of Iron Workers Local 201 on Rhode Island Avenue NE, waiting for the doors to open.

Castro, 40, has been coming to look for work nearly every day since he was laid off from his construction job in early November.

December?

"Nada."

The first few weeks of this year?

"Nada."

He's barely cobbled together enough money to pay the $2,000-a-month mortgage on his Oxon Hill home with his wife's part-time salary from Dunkin' Donuts and his unemployment check. The father of three small children worries he won't be able to pay his mortgage this month. He is eating through his savings account, which has dwindled to $700.

"I'm frustrated there's no work," he said in Spanish. "I'm becoming very, very broke. But I'm hoping Obama's plan works."

Five fellow ironworkers also lingered inside the wood-paneled union hall, comparing bank balances and swapping phone numbers of social agencies and food banks.

The House passed an $819 billion stimulus package on Wednesday, and construction workers, contractors and union officials across the country are hoping that the billions of dollars set aside in the bill for building roads, bridges, schools and more will create jobs.

The plan comes as the construction industry has had its worst job losses in more than two decades, with 900,000 workers across the country unemployed, including nearly 25,000 in the District, Maryland and Virginia. And it could get worse, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. The trade group, which has lobbied the Obama administration and Congress with 10,000 letters from its members, said most of its 33,000 member companies expect to lay off more workers. Its economist said the number of unemployed construction workers could grow to more than 2 million if the economy does not improve.

The group says the stimulus plan, which sets aside about $150 billion for construction projects, would create or save more than 660,000 construction jobs. About 13,300 could be in the D.C. region.

"It won't rescue every construction damsel in distress, but it will really make a big difference," said Ken Simonson, the trade group's chief economist.

One construction company owner in Irving, Tex., said suppliers of cement, lime and other materials have plenty of inventory -- some from cancelled deals -- and are waiting for demand to pick up. "This industry is ready to go and have people back to work," said Jim Andoga, president of Austin Bridge & Road.

Volvo Trucks North America in Greensboro, N.C., said it hopes to see sales of its dump trucks and other building equipment pick up as contractors get government-backed work. The company has laid off 1,750 workers at its plant in Dublin, Va., southwest of Roanoke.

In Tempe, Ariz., Sundt Construction laid off 80 carpenters, crane operators and others, said Doug Pruitt, chairman and chief executive. If the company doesn't get new work, more jobs will disappear.

"That stimulus could give us a significant boost," he said. "Until it begins to flow, we don't know if it will or won't, but we certainly hope it does."

Bethesda-based Miller & Long, the country's second-biggest concrete construction company, said it lost about $40 million in deals when developers recently delayed plans to build a D.C. office tower and two condo projects, one in Bethesda and one in Northern Virginia. "They said, 'We just can't do these now. There's too much uncertainty,' " said Brett McMahon, vice president of the 2,400-employee company. He has laid off about 200 workers.

Some smaller-scale construction jobs are underway in the D.C. region -- mostly bridges, military bases or public utility projects. Kevin McVeigh, business manager of the iron workers union, said that of its roughly 300 active members, about 200 are working on about a dozen jobs, including repairing roads and bridges along Kenilworth Avenue in Cheverly, and building a water-treatment plant in Bethesda. At least 30 others are out of work, and 50 have left for jobs in Atlantic City, New York or Las Vegas.

The stimulus bill is expected to give $638 million to the District, $1.23 billion to Maryland, and $1.65 billion to Virginia for construction-related projects.

Castro hopes that money turns into jobs -- fast.

He's trimmed the $175 a month he had been sending to his 80-year-old father in El Salvador and rarely takes his wife, two sons and daughter for a $38 meal at an Alexandria Mexican restaurant where the kids like the chicken quesadillas.

"No more going out, at all," he said.

By 10 a.m., only the four union staff members were left in the hall. The half-dozen ironworkers had given up for the day. One went to pick up his wife from her $7-an-hour job cleaning houses. Castro left to see if he could find any work. He tried a Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue and two smaller contractors. No luck.

"They'll be back tomorrow," said Juan Carlos Recinos, a union organizer. "They'll keep trying."

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