Are plumbers, electricians, HVAC personnel and others in the home services industry “essential,” and thus able to keep working during a “safer at home” order during the Coronavirus outbreak?
Here’s the first thing for skilled trade companies to know. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is on your side.
CISA’s description of essential services, under “Public Works,” includes the following:
“Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences.”
Some organizations, including the Conditioned Air Association of Georgia Inc., are providing a one-page notice citing the CISA guidelines for members. The notice can be used by Georgia HVAC technicians who encounter resistance.
Still, there is confusion from state to state, which leaves tradespeople nationwide making their own case.
“Plumbers, historically, protect the health of the nation,” Keresa Richardson, who co-owns Benjamin Franklin Plumbing in Dallas, told the Dallas Morning News. "And we continue to do so by providing services when everyone else is quarantined. We’re still out there doing our job.”
Benjamin Franklin’s nearly 150 employees are continuing to work, Richardson said. But the company is asking customers who call for service to tell them if anyone in the home is feeling ill or showing symptoms related to COVID-19.
“We want to make sure that if there is anyone quarantined, we’re not putting our employees at risk,” Richardson told the Dallas Morning News.
Many of the questions arise because, while CISA issued guidelines, each state makes its own rules about what is essential, as well as deciding on any criminal or civil penalties for violations.
Trade organizations and other groups, including nine entities tied to the HVACR industry, have asked federal, state and local officials to designate their industry as essential. They cite the CISA guidelines as the reason.
Most states are adopting those guidelines. For instance, the order in Ohio includes, among essential businesses, “Those in construction trades such as electricians, plumbers, HVAC workers … and anyone who ensures safe work environments are considered essential.”
In Washington, however, the state has not determined that all trades are essential. The state does have an appeal system for each business to determine if it is an essential, but that process can be somewhat lengthy.
Texas' shelter in place order that affects more than 2 million Dallas County residents is also putting an abnormal — but expected — strain on home plumbing systems, Richardson said.
Several plumbing companies’ executives who spoke with The Dallas Morning News said they’ve seen an uptick in service calls for clogged plumbing, likely resulting from the added stress of residents flushing products other than toilet paper.
“A lot of times we don’t realize we have five people in the house but you only have two people in at a time,” Dale said. “All day long, five people being there kind of creates that.”
More than half of states in the U.S. have issued some form of “safer at home” and/or required closure of non-essential businesses. But most have included “critical trades” among the exempted businesses, following federal guidelines, as citizens across the nation have been asked to limit movement to slow the spread of the dangerous virus.
As of April 6, those areas with statewide with safer at home orders include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee,
Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Some cities or counties, too, have issued stay at home orders, so it’s important to be aware of the status of your service area.
The definition of essential services can vary by location, but, for example, those covering San Francisco, Miami, New York state and Miami-Dade County all include some variation of “maintenance for the infrastructure of the facility or to maintain or safeguard materials or products therein.”
What can you do?
If your area is under a safer at home order, arm each technician with a copy of the order for your state or area, highlighting the provision that covers the trades or addresses issues such as public safety, sanitation or public health.
Ask your local or state industry association to provide a letter like this one outlining the CISA standards from Homeland Security.
Provide a separate letter on company letterhead, laminated if possible, certifying that any worker in a vehicle representing your company is either in transit to or from work or on company business.
Instruct technicians to produce evidence of a service call, through ServiceTitan or otherwise, if asked.
Widespread enforcement of stay at home orders will be difficult and likely target obvious offenders. Home services trucks with a single occupant would be unlikely targets in any event. But the steps above could cut down on the hassle for trade technicians.
And besides, Homeland Security is on your side.
Resources for the trades
For the latest information on how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting the trades, check out our Coronavirus blog, our Facebook group for customers and our Facebook group for the industry.
If you have story ideas or questions, you can email us. We’d love to tell your story about how you’re helping in your community or dealing with these uncertain times, or just help answer your questions.