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After stimulus, construction industry seeing private-sector and state projects drying up

How have Washington region paving companies benefited from the federal stimulus? Here's a look at one, which is working on a road project on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 10:45 PM

The stimulus was here.

Those words should be embossed on a stretch of Route 29 outside of Charlottesville, where paver operator Clifford Carter poured hot asphalt one year ago.

The $885,000 project, funded by federal stimulus dollars, took two days in November 2009. A few weeks later, he was laid off - temporarily, he thought, until paving season resumed in the spring. But in April, he received his first permanent layoff notice. Without a job, he couldn't afford to keep paying for life or health insurance, so he let both lapse.

"When they kicked me out the door, I lost everything," he said.

The end of the stimulus - the $787 billion that Washington approved last year in an effort to forestall another Great Depression - is more than a year away. But for Carter and thousands of other workers in the road construction industry, it has already arrived.

Road construction workers were among the first to benefit from the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into "shovel-ready" road resurfacing projects in order to save or create millions of jobs.

The bulk of highway-related work will be done within a year and more than half of the funds for it have been paid out, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, an Arlington County-based trade group.

But with the economy continuing to lag, private-sector work has all but disappeared, and many states have cut back on road work in an effort to plug gaping deficits.

Without the stimulus, thousands of workers who build and maintain America's roadways could soon join the 1.6 million construction workers who are unemployed. The construction industry lost an additional 5,000 jobs in November, the latest U.S. Labor Department data show, bringing the sector's unemployment rate to 18.8 percent.

Survival layoffs

Stimulus-funded work helped Carter's employer, S.L. Williamson Co., survive 2009. But by February, the company's president, Blair Williamson, 44, was not sure she would have enough work to keep her three paving crews of 10 employed through Labor Day.

She faced the prospect of making further cuts to her workforce, which was already down to 80 employees, from 115 three years ago. Among those cut were longtime employees such as Carter.

Carter started working for S.L. Williamson after college. He rose to foreman of a paving crew and became one of the few employees who earned a salary and worked year-round. Carter said he made about $52,000 a year - enough to afford the spacious beige rancher where he and his wife, Julie, raised three children.

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