Making hay in urban field

Boom: Contractors, building tradesmen working seven-day weeks to keep up with demand propelled by strong economy.

April 06, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

This is Don Hetz's life: He sleeps a little late on Saturdays, he knocks off a little early on Sundays to see his family, and he works almost every other waking hour of the week.

Hetz installs and services home heating and air-conditioning systems. Most of his clients are remodeling rowhouses in Canton, Fells Point and Federal Hill. The jobs are backed up two to three weeks, and he may need to start turning people down. Reluctantly, he hired a second helper. To fend off competing offers, he had to pay the new guy a percentage of the profits.

But in the philosophy of Baltimore's tradesmen, Hetz is "making hay while the sun shines."

Across the region, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, drywallers and contractors such as Hetz are basking in the glow of a strong economy that has inspired homeowners to splurge for that new kitchen or bathroom, that family room, that deck.

But the haymaking has also wreaked havoc on contractors' companies and personal lives.

Employers are losing laborers who are quitting to start their own companies or to take higher-paying jobs with other companies. That has set off intense competition and even offers of benefits packages for blue-collar workers, once unheard of but becoming more common. Some of those new hires have less experience than the workers they're replacing but are earning more. And tradesmen everywhere are sacrificing vacations and family dinners for lucrative 60- to 70-hour work weeks.

For a $20-an-hour carpenter, working seven days -- with the extra two days at time and a half -- can boost a $41,600 annual salary to $66,500. And many contractors would rather pay the overtime than hire another worker. The result is that tradesmen have seen their earnings jump.

Missing time with son

Drywaller Phil Guglielmi of Belair hasn't had a weekend off since the summer. The only days he takes off are Sundays during the summer for family cookouts. But he's beginning to worry about the constant absences from his 4-year-old son.

"I really should be spending more time with him. But in this business, you've got to make it while you're young," he said.

In recent months, Economic Roofing in Columbia has seen some longtime employees leave the construction industry for better-paying jobs, career shifts that bumped them out of the blue-collar world into the white-collar world.

"These were people who were in [roofing] for a long time, people who were good at it," said Mark East, the company's salesman. "And they found jobs they didn't have access to before. That's what opportunity brought us -- less people to work for us."

Taking longer

East said the quality of Economic's work hasn't suffered, but jobs take longer. Economic used to be able to complete a roofing job in one to two weeks; now it's taking six to eight weeks. It now takes up to two weeks to schedule repairs where it once took a day or two.

And that's with work crews going seven days a week.

"You can make yourself as busy as you want to these days," East said. "The building industry is a supply-and-demand industry, and when the demand is there, you've got to keep up with it, whatever it takes."

In Baltimore and the five metropolitan counties, building permits for residential additions, alterations and renovations reached an all-time high last year. Homeowners pulled 6,439 permits for home-improvement jobs, a jump of 1,100 from the previous year, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which tracks real estate data.

Improved benefits

That's been a boon to companies such as Sweeney Construction Associates of Catonsville.

"The demand has never been this high for contractors," said President Ray Sweeney.

Sweeney said that demand has forced him to make his business more sophisticated and professional. He has been visiting high schools and vocational schools to recruit potential carpenters, and he has improved his benefits package to offer paid holidays and vacations.

His employees "need to be given the same perks that people in other industries have," he said.

The flurry of home remodeling has affected consumers, too. It's becoming difficult for homeowners to find building contractors because many companies have stopped bidding on potential jobs while they ease their backlogs.

"My company's growing faster than I wanted."

Don Hetz, of Hetzworks

jv0 Homeowners who do find willing contractors are confronting lengthy delays. And -- despite contractors' statements to the contrary -- they're paying more for that new deck or family room.

The builders "are definitely in the drivers' seat," said Kitty Daly of HBF Design Reach, an architectural firm that designs houses and home renovation projects. "Prices have definitely gone up."

Hetz said his rates haven't gone up, just his workload. But he knows the boom might bust one day, so he's taking advantage while he can.

"So many people are rehabbing houses around here. My company's growing faster than I wanted," said Hetz, who began his company, Hetzworks, after getting laid off by a refrigeration firm after the last economic downturn in 1991.

"But because of the experience of the last recession -- which was horrible -- I'd rather work seven days a week. And if things slow down, fine, I'll take time off then."

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