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Westchester’s Heavy Industry Firms Embrace a Post-Pandemic Future

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Illustration by Ico Maker/ Adobestock

After tumultuous ups and downs during the COVID-19 crisis, the county’s construction and industrial firms look to brighter days ahead.

Everyone has a COVID story, including Fred Sciliano, vice president of LeChase Construction Services, in Armonk. His firm was in the midst of a commercial renovation project when the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020. “We went back in, six or eight months later, and there were still St. Patrick’s Day decorations all over the place,” he says. “It was kind of eerie, a little Twilight Zone-ish.”

“Twilight Zone-ish” describes pretty much everyone’s experience during the COVID era, including Westchester County’s heavy industry. Though the region is best known — and marketed — for its high-tech, pharmaceutical, and green-energy businesses, industry and infrastructure still make up a large slice of Westchester’s economic pie. And the pandemic certainly took a big bite out of that.

New York State lost 44,400 construction jobs due to the pandemic two years ago, the state’s worst annual decline in that industry in more than 25 years, according to a report released by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. More than half those losses came from New York City.

Heavy Industry

Illustration by Ico Maker/ Adobestock

Because New York City was the early epicenter of the COVID outbreak in the U.S., the construction industry in the downstate area, including Westchester, Orange, and Rockland counties (and New York City), suffered disproportionately, the report states. Construction employment in that region declined by 12.9% that year, compared with a decline of 1.7% in the rest of the state.

Sciliano says his company felt the impact at the beginning of the pandemic, when all construction work halted. But when certain businesses were designated essential, like their medical and pharmaceutical clients, LeChase could return to work on those jobs.

“They kept us busy during the pandemic, while other projects were on hold,” Sciliano says. That amounted to about 25% fewer jobs in 2020, he says. It was difficult but not devastating.

Related: Westchester’s Economic Forecast in 2022

Weathering the Pandemic Storm

Other heavy-industry business sectors also managed to weather the pandemic storm, thanks to the “essential business” tag.

“The year 2020 was actually a good year,” says Anthony Ascencao, business manager, Heavy Construction Laborers Local 60. Work for Con Edison shut down early in the pandemic, he says, “but once we got into June, it all picked back up. We had a great second half of the year. We were worried, like everybody else, especially in the first couple of months, but we were relieved when the governor said we would remain essential. Even when the inside work shut down, we could do all outside work.”

Heavy Industry

Anthony Ascencao. Courtesy of Laborers International Union of North America Local 60

Tompkins Excavating’s owner, Stacey Tompkins, said the early uncertainty had the Putnam Valley company concerned as well. “We were essential, then not essential,” she says. “We had to lay some people off, but we kept some key people. We did whatever jobs we could with restrictions in place.”

She also took advantage of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and other financial resources to stay above water. “I listened to every Zoom and email regarding PPP and anything else to help,” she says. “I asked, begged, and pleaded to get a bank to help me and worked 24/7 on this to make sure we got the money. And it sure did help.” In fact, it not only kept the firm afloat, it set them up for a strong rebound. The company has more employees now than it did just before the pandemic.

“Once we got into June [2020], it all picked back up.”
—Anthony Ascencao, Heavy Construction Laborers Local 60

Capital Logistics, a White Plains-based broker that matches shippers with retailers (such as national grocery chains with retail chains), has trucks to move food and other freight around the country, and it also thrived. “We have more than doubled our full-time staff from just before the pandemic to today,” says Jeff Gerson, cofounder and CEO.

Gerson added that a severe capacity crunch and associated cost increases since the start of the pandemic have made it more difficult to source trucks to carry freight. “This actually presents an opportunity for us at the same time, however, because it gives us an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from less capable competitors,” he says.

Heavy Industry

Heavy industry. Illustration by Ico Maker/ Adobestock

Better Days Ahead

Having survived and in some cases thrived during the pandemic, most industry leaders expect even better things to come now as the effects of the pandemic continue to fade. There is a lot of infrastructure in the county that needs work: bridges, roads, water and sewer pipes, and more are in urgent need of repair. The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill will help pay for it, putting lots of workers on call.

And unlike the hospitality and service industries, these heavy-construction jobs are being filled. “We are not having trouble” finding workers, Ascencao says. “For us, we are at 100 percent employment. Our apprentice program has 20 new apprentices, and half are already at work as laborers,” with starting hourly wages at “$24-plus and change,” increasing to $43.20 plus benefits for full journeymen, he says.

Of course, there are challenges. “Material costs are skyrocketing, and we cannot go back and renegotiate,” Tompkins says. “The availability of products is also an issue because of the manufacturing and shipping backups caused by the pandemic.” Many economists expect that to resolve over time, but nothing is certain. But while Capital Logistics is hiring and expanding, “there is a lot of pressure on our margins, as the cost of equipment — trucks — is outpacing the rate increases that we are able to place on our customers,” Gerson says.

Despite all these variables, however, many in the field expect the construction business to boom. “There were not many jobs coming out for bid [in 2020],” Ascencao says. “But once the stimulus package was announced, more jobs came out [for bid]. With the [Department of Transportation], municipalities, and ConEd, we see a lot of work in every area.”

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