Surveyors Stay Open for Business During the Coronavirus Pandemic

From coast to coast, surveyors by and large have kept busy and operational while many other sectors of the American economy experienced a slowdown and rising unemployment due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Our firm, John M. Palatiello & Associates, Inc., (JMP&A), a public affairs, government relations, and association management firm in the surveying, mapping, and geospatial field, worked with several clients to help the profession continue operations in the face of orders by Governors to shut down non-essential business operations in response to the Coronavirus. Pro-active measures led to classifications of surveying and related services as critical and essential, permitted to function when other industries and lines of business were shut down.

Our efforts began when President Trump issued two national emergency declarations under both the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act (NEA) on March 13.  We were contacted by two large surveying firm CEOs seeking verification of a rumor that the President would follow those actions by issuing a Federal order that all Americans would be required to quarantine in-home for two full weeks and the National Guard would be called upon to help enforce all Americans being quarantined at home. We immediately consulted with contacts on the White House staff and were assured no such national order was forthcoming or being contemplated.

Anticipating that orders of this nature might instead be issued by many if not all 50 state governors, JMP&A drafted a template letter in an effort to keep surveying operations open and exempt from any Governors’ orders.  The letter was provided to participants in the U.S Geospatial Executives Organization (U.S. GEO), a coalition of principals, owners, partners and senior executives of leading surveying, mapping, and geospatial firms, managed by JMP&A. The draft letter was also shared with the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), a JMP&A client, which circulated the draft letter among all state surveying societies with a recommendation that it be sent to their governor to request the exemption for surveying from any business shutdown order, as well as members of our client, the Subsurface Utility Engineering Association. The Maryland Society of Surveyors (MSS), another JMP&A client, was successful in its letter resulting in guidance released by Maryland Governor Lawrence Hogan, Jr., that specifically clarified and mentioned firms in surveying, engineering, and architecture may remain open, as they are deemed essential businesses related to federal critical infrastructure sectors.

In Virginia, the Virginia Association of Surveyors (VAS), a JMP&A client, sent its letter to Governor Ralph Northam, urging that surveying firms be permitted to remain open under any order affecting business operations. Governor Northam announced an order that all nonessential businesses close their operations. Fortunately, while not mentioned by name, surveying firms were not subject to that order, as advocated by VAS, based on the categories of businesses that could remain open.

In some other states, Governors ordered certain businesses close. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued such an order, forcing firms in fields such as architecture, engineering, surveying, and construction to cease business activities. We also recommended that surveyors in affected states appeal to these Governors to explain why such orders should exempt surveyors and why surveyors should be permitted to continue operations, based on the fact that surveyors would suffer severe economic harm by such a shutdown and are critical to the economic well-being of the state, as well as pointing out that surveying can be safely carried out with social distancing and with little or no contact with the general public.

On behalf of its clients, JMP&A also worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the White House to more specifically list surveying in its guidance on critical infrastructure sectors, noting that many of the businesses and industries listed by DHS require surveying services to continue its operations. The DHS guidance was used by numerous Governors to define critical and essential business and industry.

The result was overall continuity in the profession, according to several practitioners.

“Our overall business is up and has been busy. A few of our private sector clients placed their projects on hold, but our workload and backlog have been compensated with an increase in public sector contracts. It appears as though agencies and municipalities have taken advantage of the window of opportunity to work on infrastructure while the stay at home orders reduce traffic and crowding,” said Gary M. Faulhaber, LS, RLS, Immediate Past President of the Virginia Association of Surveyors (VAS) and Senior Surveyor, Wiles Mensch Corporation, Reston, VA.

Aaron Worley, PLS, Survey Team Leader and Principal, Rodgers Consulting, Inc., based in Germantown, MD,and President of the Maryland Society of Surveyors said, “Throughout the pandemic, there has continued to be a strong demand for our services by our clients to keep their existing projects moving forward.  We have been able to deliver project successes for our clients in the face of this challenge by being proactive in our use of remote access technologies and virtual communication tools to maintain strong client connectivity.  We also continue to be presented with new opportunities for new projects from both our existing clients and new clients.”

“We are fortunate that we remained busy.  With offices in California and Colorado, we regularly share processing and related work so when one office may slow down, it can help another office that has more of a backlog”, said Ken Meme, CP, RPP, President, Towill, Inc. Surveying, Mapping, LiDAR, Geospatial Solutions, Concord, CA.

Some firms have grown in the first half of 2020, adding staff and consummating mergers and acquisitions.

Faulhaber noted, “Our staff is thoroughly intact. We were initially cautious to hire at the onset of the pandemic, however our increase in recent backlog has caused us to begin efforts to potentially add one or two crews.”

“FXSA has been able to keep current staff, with 20% of employees working from home, said Frank X. Spencer, PE, RPLS, Senior Vice President, FXSA, El Paso, TX.

While dealing with the disruption of the pandemic, Towill, Inc. was able to close the acquisition of Cunha Engineering of Pinole, California. “While the closing of this transition comes during unusual times, it’s been a long-term goal of both firms and a well-planned acquisition,” said Meme. “We see this investment as an excellent way to increase our presence in critical market sectors while strengthening our team. Both businesses have enjoyed robust performance in spite of the global pandemic and we look forward to even better results when the crisis abates.”

The initiative of national organizations, and state affiliates, to get surveying, mapping, and geospatial activities classified as critical and essential was applauded by professionals from coast to coast.

“We were pleasantly surprised at the quick and positive response we received from the Governor’s office in response to the VAS letter. We explained why any shutdown order in Virginia should exempt surveyors and why surveyors should be permitted to continue operations. This proved to the land surveyors of Virginia the overwhelming value of membership in our association”, according to Faulhaber.

Membership in organizations like MSS and NSPS often come with benefits that are largely unnoticed by the profession at large, The work of board members, committee members, association management staff and lobbyists does not come without cost.  These entities proactively worked behind the scenes making phone calls and sending emails to those State and Federal officials to ensure that our profession would remain essential during the pandemic”, said Worley.

“US GEO has done a great job assisting our profession to be classified as critical and essential businesses”, said Spencer.

Looking at the second half of 2020, some markets are expected to decline, forcing some firms to change their strategies.

“It has always been a corporate goal to have a diverse client and market base.  That proved to be a benefit over the past several months,” said Meme.

Many surveyors foresee a slump in the commercial office development implementing teleworking on a more permanent basis. According to NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, as firms recognize the benefits of permitting many employees to work from home, the demand for office space will decline.

Another market for many surveyors and other geospatial professionals that is expected to feel the effects of COVID is local government infrastructure. Business closures, high unemployment, and citizens staying at home and sheltering in place is shrinking tax revenues for local government.  In a recent poll of 1,100 municipalities conducted by the National League of Cities, 65% said they are either canceling or delaying infrastructure projects or capital expenditures.

“During the pandemic, we have continued to implement those portions of our strategic plan related to growth,” said Worley.  “We’ll continue to do so.”

About JMP&A
John Palatiello is President of John M. Palatiello & Associates Inc., a public affairs consulting firm based in the Washington, DC suburb of Fairfax, VA, providing government relations, public relations, association management, strategic planning, event planning, and management and marketing consulting services to private firms, associations, and government agencies with an emphasis on the architecture and engineering; geospatial, mapping and GIS; construction; transportation and infrastructure, and land use sectors.