As the Big Dig Nears Completion, Thousands Laid Off

Wed July 02, 2003 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) After a decade of relying on the Big Dig project for a steady job and comfortable earnings, thousands of workers are getting pink slips as the mammoth project begins to wind down.

From a peak of 5,281 construction workers in September 2001, the number has dropped to approximately 1,300, with the layoff rate growing since March when the northbound tunnel of Interstate 93 opened. Big Dig officials say the project is now 90-percent complete.

Only approximately 50 heavy-equipment operators, from a peak of 950, remain, along with about 400 laborers, who once numbered 1,000. Now there are approximately 15 “sandhogs” —workers who helped gouge the tunnels underneath the Central Artery and link the Turnpike to the Ted Williams Tunnel — down from at least 150 two years ago.

“Now, a lot of the people who were working for seven years are out of work,” Barry O’Brien, who until recently was the president of the tunnel workers union, told The Boston Sunday Globe (June 22).

Bill Ryan, an official of the union representing operating engineers, said this was the first year his union members have had difficulty finding work.

“For all intents and purposes, the Big Dig is the Big Dug,” Ryan said.

The Big Dig, also known as the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, was designed to bury part of Interstate 93 beneath downtown Boston and connect the Massachusetts Turnpike with Logan International Airport.

What’s left of the project, to be completed in 2005, includes the underground southbound lanes of Interstate 93, expected to open in March; the demolition of the elevated Central Artery; and the completion of parks and public spaces planned for the corridor above the tunnels.

After construction began in 1991, thousands of blue-collar workers relied on their Big Dig earnings to buy new homes, take comfortable vacations, and opened investment funds to send their kids to college.

Now, many don’t know when and where they’ll get their next paycheck, especially with the sagging economy.

“A lot of craftsmen that have worked here have never been laid off and have worked a ton of overtime,” said John Pourbaix, executive director of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, a trade association. “The scary part to me is these employees pretty much became accustomed to a lifestyle and paycheck that might be going south.”

Some laid-off workers have found new employment at the Logan Airport modernization project, the convention center in South Boston, smaller commercial construction, and new construction at the universities. But hundreds of trade-union members are on unemployment, and others are finding only intermittent work. Many also are eyeing jobs outside Boston.

“You get a little nervous and a little scared,” said James Nelson, a carpenter, unemployed for the first time in 11 years. “And with the [economic] downsizing, you worry a little bit more.”

Nelson, who will use his Big Dig savings to send his daughter to college, lost his job last week. He said some members of his union have been unemployed for six months.

At the same time, some feel that workers won’t suffer too much with loss of their Big Dig jobs.

“There are always bridges to build and repair, and high-rises going up,” said Dan Kuhs of the pile drivers union.

John Bitner, chief economist of Eastern Bank, also expressed optimism that there will be an economic recovery.

“These last 1,300 [jobs] are going to be winding down and laid off just as the economy is beginning to pick up. Hopefully, these people will be coming off their jobs just in time to get reabsorbed.”