Far-flung workers help contractors rebuild fire-ravaged homes

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Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

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For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

As commutes go, few construction workers in Sonoma County drive farther to the job than the framing foreman for Synergy Group, a homebuilder in Santa Rosa.

Every morning, Pedro Montaño of Marysville drives two hours to make the 120-mile trek to the Santa Rosa area to help rebuild houses destroyed in the October 2017 wildfires. Then he drives another two hours home in the evening, after a long day.

Synergy’s project manager Andy Christopherson pays Montaño mileage for the 1,200 miles he logs weekly plus gas and oil changes twice a month for his car.

“When you find someone good, you do what you can to keep him,” Christopherson said. “As long as (this man) is willing to keep driving down to work for me, I’ll keep paying the bills to get him here.”

Christopherson’s construction crews read like a virtual passport representing cities up and down the West Coast. Synergy, for example, employs workers from Antioch, Fairfield, Vacaville and Modesto. There are others who still come from as far south as the Central Coast area, while some drive from as far north as Portland, Oregon.

Synergy and other homebuilders erecting houses in the Santa Rosa-area neighborhoods torched during the devastating Tubbs fire nearly two years ago have had to hire far-flung laborers because of the shortage of local construction workers.

Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a nonprofit contractors’ association for construction-related firms in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties, said local contractors couldn’t handle the massive rebuild without workers from outside the region and state.

“Early on, we lost more homes than we had licensed contractors in the North Bay,” Woods said. “It was the Wild West out here and contractors knew it; people came from everywhere to get work.”

Construction laborers have come from Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Idaho and Illinois to help with the ongoing rebuilding effort.

Understanding this phenomenon requires nothing but a basic understanding of math and economics. The county lost more than 5,300 homes during the 2017 fires. The demand for housing construction skyrocketed practically overnight. Meanwhile, the supply of local, skilled construction workers has remained woefully low since the construction industry shrank during the 2008 recession. The strong demand for labor and low supply forced county contractors to look elsewhere for workers.

They didn’t have to look hard. Robert Eyler, dean of the School of Extended and International Education and professor of economics at Sonoma State University, said it’s “common practice” in the construction industry following a natural disaster for workers to follow the work.

Here in Sonoma County, the first wave of post-fire recovery work was the cleanup effort. Burn sites needed to be cleared for the construction that would follow.

Once that process ended about a year ago, the second wave began. Concrete guys came from Solano County to pour foundations. Framers came from Marysville and elsewhere to build house frames. Siders came from Yuba City. Other skilled construction laborers came from wherever they could — mostly the Central Valley but from other regional destinations, too.

Some of the workers from outside the county have stayed in local hotels rather than make a long daily commute.

Erik Nevtsosie, general manager of the Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg, said at one point more than half of his 163 rooms were occupied by construction workers from out of town.

Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

“Most of the (workers) who stayed here were involved with rebuilding homes in Coffey Park,” said Nevtsosie, whose family lost their Fountaingrove rental home in Santa Rosa in the fires. “To be honest, we were kind of the last resort because we’re about a 20-minute drive from where they needed to be.”

Other laborers stayed, and continue to stay, in construction company-sponsored housing. Tennis Wick, director at Permit Sonoma, said the county has loosened restrictions to allow for temporary “labor camps” so contractors can host workers far from home.

Synergy, for example, brings in a crew of 30 framers from Portland, Oregon, every month and puts them up in company housing. The framers come for six or seven days at a time, then take four or five days off. When they’re here, they work long hours. Christopherson said they produce more than they would if they were working regular hours during an ordinary workweek.

The home rebuilding projects in Sonoma County appeal to out-of-town construction laborers because the work pays well, in most cases an average of 15% to 25% more than they typically earn. For the extra money, laborers are willing to make the long-distance commutes or spend weeknights away from home.

Visiting workers put some of their earnings back into the local economy, a benefit that Sonoma State’s Eyler called “undeniable.” Still, a phalanx of out-of-town laborers is not a viable long-term economic boost for Sonoma County or solution for local builders. At some point, the traveling construction workers will be drawn somewhere else they can command good money.

To combat this dilemma, the North Coast Builders Exchange recently teamed with the Career Technical Education Foundation and Sonoma County Office of Education to launch a program to stack the deck with the next generation of construction workers.

Dubbed the North Bay Construction Corps, the program includes an after-school, five-month basic construction training program for seniors in their last semester of high school. The LIME Foundation also has partnered with the construction corps to launch a sister program for people 18 to 26 who wish to learn new techniques in smart and ecofriendly construction.

“Eventually we hope to get to the point where we are able to respond to construction needs with our own people from our own communities,” Woods said. “Until then, we’ll take all the help we can get.”

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