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Construction Firms Hit With One-Two Punch Of Labor Shortage, COVID Vaccine Hesitancy

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Oklahoma construction firms are 33% more likely than the country as a whole to say a worker shortage is making projects take longer to finish, and vaccine hesitancy appears not to be helping matters for anyone.

According to a 2021 workforce survey by Associated General Contractors of America, 81% of Oklahoma firms responding said a labor shortage is holding up projects, compared to 61% of firms nationwide.

Nationally and in Oklahoma, more than 80% of companies said they are having a hard time finding laborers, truck drivers and a variety of trades.

While almost 60% of Oklahoma firms blamed their trouble finding workers on enhanced unemployment benefits, 82% said available candidates simply are not qualified.

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy can exacerbate the worker shortage. AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson said construction safety researchers have been tracking that.

"It seems to show that construction and extraction workers have lower vaccination rates and higher hesitancy about being vaccinated than the general population of working people," Simonson said.

Chris Carson is a general contractor covering southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. He said a significant portion of his workers live outside urban centers, and many don’t trust the vaccines.

"The biggest motivator it seems lately has been that if you get COVID, if you get sick, if you test positive, you're out of a check for a couple of weeks, and that has changed a few minds. Not all of them by any stretch, but it has changed a few minds," Carson said.

Carson says he’s also run into situations where a project might be at a hospital, which requires all vendors be vaccinated. Having unvaccinated workers threatens to slow down those jobs even more as contractors must find replacements for workers they already have.

AGC CEO Steve Sandherr said while vaccines are widely available and he encourages getting them, contractors can’t just mandate them.

"It's a mandatory subject of bargaining, and he and other employers need to negotiate with the union what a vaccination program is going to look like," Sandherr said.

Despite the tight labor market and impacts of vaccine hesitancy, more than half of Oklahoma firms responding to the AGC survey said they’re doing as much or more business than they were a year ago.

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