By Marni Jameson
Lost in all the shouting going on among VA officials, contractors and politicians about the Orlando VA Medical Center's much-delayed opening are the workers getting hurt most by the project's poor oversight.
"All these politicians and VA officials keep throwing around statements like: 'This is unacceptable!' 'We have to make better progress!' Blah, blah, blah, but nothing happens," said Charles Conner, an electrician once employed on the $656 million government project. But like several hundred others there, Conner now is out of work.
Frustrating him even more is that when VA officials had a chance last fall to get at least some of the new facility finished on time and put hundreds of laid-off workers back on the job, they chose not to.
U.S. Rep. John Mica -- the Winter Park Republican who has long supported locating a VA hospital in Central Florida -- didn't learn of that failed attempt until mid-May.
"I'm not pleased with what I've heard," Mica said. "We have a whole host of issues that may end up in litigation, and the parties are further apart now."
Delays have pushed the completion date back a year and half, from October 2012 to spring 2014, according to Brasfield & Gorrie, the main contractor for the 1.2 million-square-foot facility. The VA maintains that the medical center will be finished next summer.
"They can talk all they want about the problems, but they still get paid," said Conner, a 59-year-old military veteran from Orlando, about those at the top of the construction ladder. "The rest of us, who didn't create the mess, sit home and lose money."
Since Conner was laid off, the electrician estimates he has lost more than $40,000 in wages. Multiply that by the 700 other workers who aren't on the job site, and that's nearly $3 million in lost wages for Central Florida's struggling construction industry.
Hired by Quinco, the project's electrical contractor, Conner started working on the VA Medical Center in January 2011. "Boy, was I happy," he said of the prospect of 20 months of steady work, which he was told he would have until the VA opened in October 2012.
But last October, Quinco owner David Deese called 60 of his workers to his trailer and laid them all off. Conner was among them.
That layoff dropped the electrical crew from 160 men to 100, Deese said. After Christmas, a second layoff cut the number to 50.
"The combination of the VA's slow approvals on change orders, hundreds of changes to the electrical drawings and suspension of construction in many areas of the project gave me no choice," Deese said of the layoffs.
"I told them I was sorry, that I wished I could do more, but I can't control the bureaucracy," he said. "I told them it was a burden to me, too."
Of the nearly 100 subcontractors working on the VA Medical Center, Quinco's contract is the largest, according to George Paulson, on-site project executive for B&G. Quinco's original contract started at $45 million.
However, because of the extent of the electrical changes, that amount has almost doubled.
Deese has submitted about 300 change orders for the additional work and the associated extra costs. "Fewer than 10 have been approved for the full amount," he said. Most haven't been approved at all.
The ones partially approved made matters worse, he said. "I'll submit a change order for, say, $2 million, and the will VA approve it for $100,000, and we don't know if we can afford to start."
Quinco has been hit especially hard, said Paulson, because the original electrical drawings, which the architect provided, were so flawed. But all subcontractors have been hurt, and some, including Postel Industries, the steel contractor, have quit in frustration.
A way out
Last October, however, the VA had a chance to prevent all that.
After huddling with the primary subcontractors, B&G executives came up with a way to re-sequence and accelerate the job, Paulson said.
Their plan would allow the clinic side of the project to open on schedule and start serving veterans; return at least half of the 700 laid-off workers to the job; and let the VA and the community have some success, Paulson said.
"Most of the problems were on the hospital side" of the project, he said. "So while those were getting resolved and the hospital was on hold, we thought it made sense to work on the side that wasn't held up" -- namely, the 400,000-square-foot clinic.
"Splitting the project in two phases would cost the VA a little more from an acceleration standpoint, but we could give them the clinic by October 2012 as promised," Paulson said. "We thought it was a pretty good idea."
Deese agreed: "It would have allowed the VA to service vets in the clinic, get men on site and move up the completion of the hospital to spring 2013. We thought it was a no-brainer."
But the VA said no, according to those involved.