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Big projects require more workers this winter


Many people watch the winter days go by from inside offices, but workers on Interstate 235 and at some of the other major construction projects in Greater Des Moines have nothing separating them from the elements.

Several area construction companies have significantly more employees on payroll this winter than in previous years out of necessity to keep large projects moving forward.

“When you get some of these large projects, like Des Moines has been fortunate enough to get these past few years, you will work outside year round, weather permitting,” said Chris Harrison, the vice president for business development for Weitz Co.’s Iowa business unit. “There’s no way to get around it because owners have a schedule to meet. Without sacrificing quality, you find ways to work through the winter to meet their needs.”

Weitz has about 170 hourly workers right now, which is double what it had last winter. Two other area construction companies, Neumann Brothers Inc. and Jensen Construction Co., also have more people on payroll now compared to a year ago, a reflection of the trend of more construction jobs in the city.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of people employed in construction in Des Moines has consistently grown since 1994, with the past year showing the biggest increase. Last January, 13,700 people worked construction, a thousand more than the same month in 2003. In November 2004, the most recent month for which data is available, 17,100 people worked construction, compared with 15,100 the year before.

“We have a lot of small jobs mixed in with the big jobs, and all of a sudden, you have a big payroll,” Harrison said. A large portion of Weitz’s workforce right now is assigned to the Deerfield Retirement Community in Urbandale and the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage site in West Des Moines.

Marshall Linn, the president and CEO of Neumann Brothers, said his company has also benefited from “the incredible amount of construction jobs in the city right now.” Prior to the week of Jan. 3, Linn said his 150-200 workers were still averaging at least 40-hour work weeks.

“We know that winter comes every year in Iowa, and you plan for that,” Linn said. “You put on a few more clothes and you keep working.”

Neumann is working on the new Science Center of Iowa and several other projects, including a 1,800-car parking garage for EMC Insurance Cos. and a new building for Farmer’s Mutual Insurance in West Des Moines. Like Weitz, some of Neumann’s projects are at the enclosed stage, where workers have some shelter.

Weather has a major influence on what can be done outdoors in the winter, according to Dan Timmons, vice president of Jensen Construction, which is working on the I-235 reconstruction.

“Some types of concrete pouring we cannot do when the weather gets cold, and that’s probably the biggest thing that we contend with,” Timmons said. “We can enclose an area and keep it warm for pouring – 50 degrees for 7 days – but there is a significant expense involved. It just really depends on where that piece fits into the project. You may incur that expense for the long haul to make your schedule.”

Weitz, Neumann Brothers and Jensen all said severe wind chills and icy conditions would bring work to a halt, but aside from those weather-related snags, it’s business as usual if it’s a “halfway decent day.”

“I would say not many guys complain about it,” Neumann’s Harrison said. “They are hard-working guys who have probably done it for a number of years, and they don’t get paid for days off. Still, everyone looks forward to a snow day every now and then.”

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