Gas worker lockout hurting housing starts; mayor voices concern

Efforts to complete work on a new $15.4 million mixed-income apartment building located at 2045 Dorchester Ave. have been complicated by the National Grid worker lockout. Bill Forry photo

Walsh asks resolution; costs pile up

A dispute between National Grid and its workers is having an impact on local developers, with delays in gas service pushing project completion dates into next year and frustrating builders left in the lurch.The standoff has now stretched out since June and put roughly 1,200 workers out of commission while the company uses a smaller, emergency replacement force.

Mayor Martin Walsh this week said he is worried about the impacts of the lockout on work schedules and the quality of service.

“I’ve been in contact with the company,” he said. “I want to see both sides get more intense in their negotiations. I don’t want to see this lack of service to developers—big or small— happening. There are projects that are on tight timelines, with tax credits that they need and this lockout is starting to really effect people. It could be catastrophic to some of them.”

Related reading: Boston officials want a good look at status of city’s gas issues

Huggens Lafond and Geovanne Colon are development partners working on two condominiums in Dorchester. Their project, 132-136 Quincy St., is delayed by months and exacting a hefty toll on them emotionally and financially.

An email from National Grid to Lafond said: “At this time, due to unresolved labor negotiations with United Steelworkers Local 12003 and 12012-04, National Grid currently has a work contingency plan in place that is focused on emergency related services.”

Their application had been re-processed for a 2019 installation date, the email said. “Unfortunately, we are not able to estimate when we will be able to accommodate the work you have requested.”

Without the gas line, the developers are not able to get their certificate of occupancy for the two-family house as it nears completion. For small businessmen like them, Lafond said, it is “traumatic.”

“It took me and my partner’s life savings to get this off the ground. This is our source of income, our source of revenue,” he said. “To push off work into 2019, it’s destroying any opportunity we have to turn a profit.”

Larger projects are also getting caught in the vortex of the labor dispute.

Fran Murphy, chief financial officer of The Boston Home, is overseeing the Harmon Apartments project. The $15.4 million mixed-income apartment building, located at 2045 Dorchester Ave. two blocks away from Ashmont Station, sits adjacent to The Boston Home’s original building with a three-story facade along the avenue.

With 36 completely accessible units, complete with specialized supportive technology and services, developers and the city tout the project as both affordable and accessible. And now it is facing a severe snag.

When they received their notice from National Grid in June, “we had at that point been very close to scheduling installation of the gas line,” Murphy told the Reporter. “Every week that goes by there’s something that has to be done to work around the installation of gas.”

Lately, it has been the sidewalks and driveway, covered at the moment by wooden ramps from the driveway up past the bus stop on Gallivan Boulevard. Gas lines were supposed to be installed in the pathways, and the project was supposed to wrap by mid-November, he said, adding, “It’s a situation we don’t want to continue into the winter. Even without gas, we could just finish the sidewalk and driveway, knowing that when the gas goes in, we would have to destroy the work that was done and dig it all up again.”

The Home got a call this week telling the group that the gas lines would not go in until sometime next year. “This is shocking news to us,” Murphy said. “They know if they are not in the ground by November, it could delay the completion of the project until spring, and “that reality looks like it’s coming to fruition.”

A National Grid spokeswoman said the company sent out letters to “potential new gas customers” prior to the contact negotiate deadline warning them that “there might be a delay in service installation if an agreement was not reached by contract expiration and if a work stoppage were to occur as a result.”

They followed up after the negotiations stalled, the company said in an email to the Reporter, letting customers know there would be work stoppages. National Grid recently made a round of calls to note the upcoming winter moratoriums on work and to pass the word that “we’ll be less likely to install new service in 2018.”

These moratoriums usually kick in around November and, as Lafond points out, they already have resulted in a backlog from the year before when the moratorium arrived earlier than expected.

“We filed for a permit and we’ve been waiting for a gas line for at least the past six months now,” he said. As it was too cold for them to dig into the ground early last winter, he added, “it took other projects out of the pipeline. Not only were their gas lines not put in, but anyone who would be on the list for this season would also be put off.”

These two Dorchester projects are taking different tacks in confronting the issue. The Harmon Apartments team is essentially in a state of “blocking and tackling,” Murphy said. They are in the final leg of construction, with sheetrock up and cabinetry installed.

“Now we have to think about keeping the building safe,” he said. “You get so much invested in it — a ballpark $10 to $12 million invested already — and we don’t have a live sprinkler system because the safety systems are run by a generator and the generators are gas fired. So, we don’t have that and we certainly don’t have heating.”

This is a massive risk going into the winter, he said, as moisture damage could ruin the drywall. They have to figure out how to best insure the property under these conditions, like bringing in temporary heat sources, and going in for multiple massive backup gas tanks that require an extensive permitting process.

“Disaster,” he said. “Disaster.”

Lafond and Colon are taking a dramatic step to avoid being dependent on gas providers — they are swapping the entire project over to electricity. That means buying new stoves, generators, washer/dryers, air handlers, water heaters, and preparing to educate the new owners on how to use them correctly to keep the service as comparable to gas as possible.

“It’s beyond doubled our costs, but we feel it’s a better option than waiting until 2019,” he said. “For me, the cost is just increasing. We have to replace everything we did with gas before, everything, not just the hardware, but also the labor to install it.”

The lifelong Boston residents wanted to build in their neighborhood, bringing more homeownership and tax revenue to the block. “Now it feels like we’re being squeezed out,” Lafond said.

National Grid maintains that it reached out early to inform developers about potential delays and accommodate difficult projects. “We have made an effort to provide as much lead time as possible to potential customers so that they could explore options for alternative fuel sources,” the National Grid spokeswoman said. “We have also created a priority list of customers who are unable to convert to an alternative fuel and for whom a delay would be a hardship. Working closely with the customers and also the city—and provided we’re able to obtain the necessary permits from the city—we are making our best effort to accommodate those hardship requests.”

As to the duration of the lockout, negotiations are still dragging out. Union and gas representatives have met eleven times, with another planned for next Thursday, Oct. 4.

Both sides said they want to reach a fair agreement, but point to the other as unwilling to reasonably budge. “We are committed to negotiating for a fair agreement with the Steelworkers that balances the needs of our employees and our customers,” the gas company spokeswoman said. “National Grid has communicated to these two unions that we remain willing to meet seven days a week to reach an agreement on all outstanding issues.”

But Joe Kirylo, president of USW Local 12003, told the Reporter during a session of negations on Tuesday that the union believes “they’re not interested in a win-win-win; they’re interested in concessions.”

For the workers who have been locked out and unpaid since the summer and have no healthcare or pay, their representatives say the conditions in Boston are made actively less safe because of the out-of-work union members to keep an eye on the systems.

“I think it’s a time bomb ticking,” Kirylo said. “Of course, they can’t handle the workloads, because they can’t even handle the Grade 1 leaks.”

A Grade 1 gas leak near an elementary school on Quincy Street has been seeping since Aug. 14, he said. He noted that National Grid replacement workers have gone back to the site at least 10 times trying unsuccessfully to fix it, and that more experienced workers are available to do so but are locked out of their contracts.

The impasse has the attention of Mayor Walsh, who told the Reporter on Tuesday that he has been getting more calls from frustrated and concerned constituents.

“We are approaching 100 days of this lockout and it’s going to start impacting more people,” Walsh said. “There’s going to be a backlog on development. And I also have a concern on the safety level. There are workers that have been brought in and they’re not as familiar with the lay of the land in Boston— the streets, the shut-offs.”

The potential catastrophe that the mayor referenced is staring them in the face, developers say, with costs of replacement fuel and the mitigation absorbing funds that could have gone to other projects in the future. And with National Grid their only gas option, Lafond said it feels like his “hands are tied.”

“It’s already pushed my timeline out five months,” he said. “I’m carrying additional costs. We expected at the beginning of the season to get a gas line.” With the negotiations, he added, “I almost feel as if they have used us as leverage, both sides, and it’s pretty unfair for us to be isolated and pigeon-holed the way we are.”