One by one, 20 carpenters scaled the same ladder to the roof of the $140 million Lifebridge construction project in Kirkland, where 209 luxury apartments and 158 senior assisted-living units are underway.
Many stories below, plumbers toiled side by side, taking occasional breaks for their turn in a shared portable toilet. In all, about 75 construction workers moved around the site on most days, often close together, even though by then – the last week in March – the risks were well known. And then a plumber tested positive for the new coronavirus.
“There was no enforcement of any kind. There were no steps taken,” said a supervisor on the project, who feared retribution if he was identified. “It was basically, put your blinders on and keep working, going forward.”
At the time of the plumber’s diagnosis, Washington was under orders from Gov. Jay Inslee to restrict many business operations in the state, including residential construction. Except for government-financed affordable housing projects and those in jeopardy of being ruined by weather, residential construction was supposed to stop, or risk criminal prosecution, the governor warned.
But that warning appears to be toothless. Despite hundreds of complaints from citizens about suspected violations, the state took no enforcement actions against residential construction firms that violated the order, a spokesman for the state Military Department, which was responsible for coordinating the state’s response to the virus, confirmed.
Complaints to the state, obtained by The Seattle Times under open-records requests, as well as interviews with construction workers, businesses and government officials, show that, without enforcement, saws buzzed, hammers slammed and paychecks were cashed.
Projects large and small invoked the broad loopholes Inslee’s order afforded, while at least a few others openly defied it, even those that were the subjects of multiple complaints.
“The restrictions Governor Inslee placed on construction projects were believed to be largely followed by construction firms,” said state spokeswoman Chelsea Hodgson.
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for Katerra Inc., the California-based company building the Lifebridge project, said, “The safety and health of our employees and the communities in which we work is our top priority. Local and state authorities approved Katerra continuing work.”
As an industry whose work is visible when most people are trapped at home, residential construction became a point of tension in Washington’s withering economy, and some firms’ handling of Inslee’s shutdown order offers a case study as other businesses are slowly being allowed to reopen.
An affiliation of unlikely bedfellows in labor and the construction industry — which often clash — advised Inslee about how to lift the ban on residential construction, a plan the governor announced April 24. Matt Swanson of the Northwest Regional Carpenters Union said the group had a common purpose of getting back to work, but only after safety measures had been found.
But whether the ban was largely adhered to, and whether the government did enough to enforce it, remain unanswered questions even for members of the working group.
“That is something we’ve asked for, as we’ve rolled out these responses and actions: What have things looked like on the ground?” Swanson said. “It’s not exactly clear. We definitely get reports of people going above and beyond, doing a great job, and others missing the mark entirely.”
Inslee’s sheltering orders, intended to save lives, have exacted a staggering economic cost. As of last week, more than 1.4 million people in the state had filed initial unemployment claims, while COVID-19, the illness the coronavirus causes, has now killed more than 930 Washingtonians.
Since lifting restrictions on residential construction, Inslee has issued a phased plan to reopen retail stores, barber shops, auto dealerships and other businesses by June 1. A group of Republican lawmakers has sued Inslee seeking to bat down his stay-at-home order in full. Meanwhile, some gun stores and a smattering of other shops have opened or remained so, bucking Inslee’s orders. Tribal casinos, which are not subject to Inslee’s jurisdiction, are also starting to reopen.
Despite the governor’s insistence that there would be consequences for violators of his stay-at-home order, the state never shared the hundreds of complaints against builders with municipalities – which actually had the power to stop work by suspending or denying building permits.
A public-records request for all such complaints forwarded to the city of Seattle, for instance, found none, and city officials confirmed no complaints submitted to the governor’s online portal reached them. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office received one complaint about residential construction on April 13 from the governor’s office, but city inspectors declined to visit the site, the mayor’s spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said in an email. Seattle left enforcement to the state, Hightower said.
The state Military Department said the state Department of Labor and Industries was responsible for enforcement of the stay-at-home order as it applies to residential construction, and that no enforcement actions were taken against companies that continued to work.
Cities and counties had discretion to impose criminal charges for violation of the order, but “these law enforcement agencies have been following an approach very similar to the state agencies in that they are focusing on providing education to encourage voluntary compliance,” Hodgson, the state spokeswoman, said in an email.
Public health agencies also weren’t checking on construction sites. Asked how many COVID-19 cases had been traced back to construction sites, Public Health — Seattle & King County said it didn’t know, and the county found no record of the Lifebridge project among its contact-tracing records of COVID-19-positive patients. Spokeswoman Kate Cole said construction sites are “workplaces that are not high-priority areas (congregate settings serving vulnerable populations or health care settings),” so disease spread at construction sites is not specifically tracked.
“Serious financial trouble”
In Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Dillon Kane has continued work on a two-unit townhouse through the lockdown order, even as his project drew multiple complaints to the governor’s office from neighbors who say crews operated unsafely and in violation of the order.
Then, on Easter Sunday, there was a parking dispute between Kane and a neighbor who’d complained on four separate occasions to the governor’s office that Kane’s project was violating the stay-at-home order. Police responded, but no one was ticketed or arrested. The neighbor involved was so rattled by the experience that he moved from the neighborhood.
Kane said money was his reason for defying the governor’s order and keeping six to 10 workers employed on the site.
“This is a property I paid $1.2 million for,” he said. “These are things that we invest in, that we need to sell. What if banks stop lending? What if people stop buying? Then we’re in some serious financial trouble.”
He declined to answer questions about the public health implications of his decision, but acknowledged one neighbor has even engaged him in conversation about the importance of social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
Kane said he was aware of the governor’s order, but disagreed with it and willfully ignored it. He said he was confident if he continued the project during the stay-at-home order, nobody would stop him.
“You meet the criteria”
On March 26, Inslee’s order shutting down most residential construction sites took effect. By coincidence, it was the same day the coronavirus-infected plumber was last at the Lifebridge job site in Kirkland, according to emails between the project’s manager and city of Kirkland officials.
It’s also the day that a longtime Inslee political-ally-turned lobbyist, Brian Bonlender, assured Katerra it had Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet’s blessing to continue the Lifebridge project.
Bonlender spent decades working for Inslee, first as a congressional aide and later as the governor’s cabinet secretary for commerce, before opening a lobbying firm last year. Katerra paid him $4,500 a month, according to lobbying disclosure records.
“The mayor called back. She looked into it, talked to her planning department head and city manager, and together they decided that Katerra is OK to continue their operations on the site,” Bonlender wrote in an email obtained by The Seattle Times under an open-records request. He shared Sweet’s personal phone number with Katerra executives and directed project supervisors to call her if city inspectors tried to shut down the job.
“My efforts were focused solely on seeking clarity on the intention of the governor’s proclamations and communicating those to my clients,” Bonlender said in an email to The Seattle Times. “Everyone I work with was focused on ensuring compliance with the public health orders and recommendations coming from the state and other authorities.”
Besides protecting the project from weather damage, Katerra says it was allowed to keep working because the project included affordable housing, as also required by Kirkland city codes. The 40 units have rents capped at $1,650 a month for a studio provided the tenant’s income is less than $37,000 a year, as well as 15 assisted-living units.
In a phone interview with The Seattle Times, Sweet said Bonlender contacted her through her husband, state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, seeking permission for Katerra to continue working.
“I said it’s the governor’s call as to what the criteria is, and it sounds to me like you meet the criteria,” based on preventing damage and the affordable housing fraction of the project, Sweet said.
Asked whether she’d considered that the project’s affordable-housing component was not publicly financed, a requirement to meet the governor’s exception, Sweet said, “I didn’t consider it at all.” Sweet said enforcement was the governor’s job as the issuer of the stay-at-home order – not the city’s, and certainly not hers.
“I have no power. I have no authority,” Sweet said. “I get it that people are concerned about contagions.”
The Katerra supervisor who complained about the project to the governor’s office said neither of the reasons the company cited was valid. “We’re not building anything critical, just apartments – for-profit, market-rate buildings,” he said.
In early April, the supervisor called Sweet directly to express his concerns about a lack of social distancing at the site, as well as the unsanitized ladders and bathrooms. By then, Katerra already had an email from the state Department of Labor and Industry, and verbal assurance from Sweet that the project could proceed.
But the project was jeopardized again by the pandemic. On March 25 and 26, a plumbing subcontractor on the project went to work, even though he was feeling ill. On March 31, he tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting a one-week shutdown of the jobsite, according to email from Kirkland building inspectors and a project superintendent.
Katerra briefly paused work at the site but resumed on April 6 and work continued there until last week, when, according to a company spokeswoman, the project was mothballed indefinitely “due to COVID-related economic impacts.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that a quote attributed to someone named Swift was actually spoken by Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet, and to clarify the role of the state Military Department.