Battle cry for licensed plumbers

BY GEORGIAN LUSSIER SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR ECONOMIST MILTON Friedman popularized the proverb that everything must be paid for, sooner or later, directly or indirectly; there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, who is paying for the unlicensed plumber? Let's take a look: Licensed plumbers, who protect the health of the nation though code and safety compliance, registered apprentices, workers' compensation

BY GEORGIAN LUSSIER
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR

ECONOMIST MILTON Friedman popularized the proverb that everything must be paid for, sooner or later, directly or indirectly; there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, who is paying for the unlicensed plumber? Let's take a look:

  • Licensed plumbers, who protect the health of the nation though code and safety compliance, registered apprentices, workers' compensation and liability insurance;
  • States, cities and towns, which forgo license or permit fees (the lack of a permit prevents a municipality from controlling the work of the unlicensed plumber, which threatens public safety);
  • Residential consumers, who think they save a bundle of money but instead acquire substandard systems that will not be maintained by a professional plumber; and
  • Wholesale supply distributors, who allow illegal contractors to contaminate their customer base, producing a downward cycle of business ethics.

In conducting a business review class for plumbing contractors across the state of Connecticut, I consistently hear they are faced with unfair competition. In general, contractors strike me as creative problem-solvers. However, many seem resigned to playing on an uneven field. From my view, contributing factors to this dilemma include:

  • The reluctance of licensed plumbers to turn in known offenders — no one likes to be a snitch, and contractors don't believe anything will happen anyway;
  • A scarcity of state inspectors to catch the unlicensed plumber in action;
  • Consumers, who want to run their own projects, think plumbers are overpaid, and do not understand the inherent health and safety risks of plumbing work;
  • Wholesale supply houses that sell to homeowners and unlicensed plumbers (home-improvement centers dramatically changed their business model); and
  • Unscrupulous general contractors who hire unlicensed and illegal workers to perform plumbing on large commercial jobs.

I believe these forces produce a conspiracy of silence that helps unlicensed plumbers thrive. However, the public nature of the Internet can put significant pressure on these illegal operators. A recent Web search for "unlicensed plumbers" produced the following examples.

The Websites of two independent contractors in Connecticut alerted visitors to the value of licensed plumbers:

  • One states that the law requires a license and advises a consumer to check licenses for the correct name and a designation of P-1 or P-2. Consumers are encouraged to look at the condition of a vehicle as well as the presence of the company name and license number. They are cautioned about drain-cleaning companies that may operate without a plumbing license. The educational and apprenticeship requirements to obtain a license also are spelled out.
  • The other Website leads with "Be-ware of the unlicensed plumber — unlicensed means unqualified." It explains that licensing requires five years' experience under a licensed master plumber and a passing score on a written exam. References to the hazards of contaminated water and faulty relief valves reinforce the need for qualified plumbing work. The consumer is encouraged to contact a local code official with any suspicions of an unlicensed plumber.

The New York City Department of Buildings' Website lists license and renewal disciplinary actions for plumbers and electricians. From 2001 through 2005, actions were taken against 140 unlicensed plumbers, including fines, warning letters and warrants.

The New Hampshire Plumbers' Licensing Board minutes report increasing issues with unlicensed plumbers, requiring numerous court hearings. The board is considering mock trial training to assist the inspectors with judicial protocol and procedures.

Other online reports detail the outcomes of actions against unlicensed plumbers:

  • One reports a fine against a New Jersey plumber of $50,000 for working without a license. The charge was brought by the Division of Consumer Affairs and the Board of Examiners of Master Plumbers and was prompted by consumer complaints. The New Jersey State League of Master Plumbers reported 78 guilty verdicts and 105 signed complaints resulting from legal actions pursued by their organization.
  • The other describes a five-year battle over the practice of three gas utilities using unlicensed personnel for residential service and repair work. In an out-of-court settlement, the utilities admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay $542,500. The settlement went toward the legal fees incurred by the local contractors and state associations that participated in the suit. The executive director of the Connecticut PHCC association said: "It has been an expensive undertaking. But it has proven that our industry can accomplish a lot if its members cooperate."

This sampling of Internet information can serve as a rallying cry for licensed plumbers. Industry professionals need to actively raise public awareness of the price we all pay for imposters. State-by-state licensing requirements are available on www.contractors-license.org

Be informed. Put the unlicensed plumber on notice — no more free lunch!

Georgian Lussier is the principal of G.F. Lussier & Associates, which provides management consulting and training to a variety of industries. She teaches the Business Review continuing education classes throughout the state of Connecticut for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. Her father, George Farkas, is a retired plumbing contractor and a past president of Connecticut Plumbing-Heat-ing-Cooling Contractors. Her husband, Bill Lussier, is a plumbing inspector in Connecticut, holds a building official's license and teaches technical continuing education classes for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. She can be reached by phone at 203/265-1977, via e-mail at [email protected] or on her Website at www.practicalhr.com