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

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.

In 2008, as the economy tanked and paving work dried up, Carter saw about a third of his income vanish when the company made him an hourly employee. No longer on salary, he was laid off just before Thanksgiving that year and rehired in the spring. He assumed the same thing would happen when he was laid off again shortly before Thanksgiving in 2009.

During that winter, he was offered a job with another paving company. But he turned it down, thinking he would be returning to S.L. Williamson. Instead, he received a permanent layoff notice in April.

When he lost his job, he and his wife lost their health insurance. Medical bills for routine visits and medications began piling up. At one point, Carter stopped taking cholesterol and blood pressure medications because he couldn't afford them.

He went from being three years away from paying off his house to struggling to keep up with mortgage payments. He and his wife stopped weekly dinners out at a nearby buffet, and they have not taken a vacation in three years.

The holidays offer "no joy," he said. "You can't go visit the people you want. There is no fun in it. You just maintain what you have."

A life preserver

When the stimulus was first passed, policymakers stressed the importance of spending the money quickly in order to have the greatest impact, and many states, including Maryland and Virginia, chose roadwork as the quickest, most efficient vehicle.

For much of the Washington area's road construction industry, the stimulus has been more of a life preserver than a windfall. Even with the boost from taxpayers, many firms are still struggling to survive.

"Most of us are bidding at cost just to keep guys busy," said Jay Baldwin, president of Reliable Contracting in Millersville.

A few weeks after President Obama signed the stimulus bill in February 2009, Maryland became the first state to put the money to work with a repaving project along New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County.

The state devoted more of its stimulus funds to resurfacing than the District and Virginia, which chose to divide it between resurfacing and construction. The sluggish recovery, however, has the paving industry in all three jurisdictions staring at the same post-stimulus cliff.

"God, I don't know where we would be without the stimulus money," said David C. Bramble, president of David A. Bramble Inc., a paving and asphalt company based in Chestertown, Md. "I don't know where we are going to be next year. The state doesn't have any money next year."

Bramble recently finished one of its last stimulus-funded resurfacing projects: an overlay job along Route 33 in St. Michaels. The company has enough work lined up to bring its two remaining paving crews back in April. But whether they will have enough work to last past Labor Day is questionable.

"I hope there's more work," said Victor Knotts, 29, who has worked for Bramble for four years and was idled for six months last year. "I don't want to lose my house."

Holding down two jobs

In September, S.L. Williamson learned it would get one more dollop of stimulus-funded work as a subcontractor for a bigger construction company in Northern Virginia that won a contract to repave Skyline Drive.

The project entails paving over portions of the scenic route that Blair Williamson's father had originally paved more than 30 years ago. The work is expected to provide a good start to 2011.

The Skyline Drive job allowed Williamson to bring back some of the workers she laid off last year, but not all of them. And not Carter.

After being out of work for eight months, Carter took two jobs: one full time helping lay brick at a school construction project near his house and one part time behind the counter in the tire shop at a local Wal-Mart. The combined hourly wages add up to about 60 percent of what he made as a paver operator. And the 60-plus-hour weeks are grueling.

His day begins at 5 a.m. He has to be at his construction job by 7:30. As soon as he gets off at 4 o'clock, he stops at home to change out of his construction gear and hustle to his 4:30 shift at Wal-Mart.

Carter doesn't eat dinner until 9:30, when he gets home from Wal-Mart. Then it's off to bed so he can be up in time to start the cycle all over again. He gets to sleep in on the weekends when his shift at Wal-Mart starts at 9 a.m. On Saturday and Sunday, he gets off at 6 p.m.

"I'm tired, so tired I can't actually really rest," Carter said. But he counts himself one of the lucky ones. He is in touch with other former S.L. Williamson colleagues who are still unemployed.

He said he will keep up this schedule "until my body can't do it any more."

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