Why Techs Work ‘Off the Clock'

January 28, 2008
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In June 2006, The NEWS published the article “Moonlighting: Going Behind a Contractor’s Back.” In it, contractors gave their opinions on employees who moonlight and how it affects their businesses. One contractor stated, “If we find out they [employees] are using our materials, our trucks, or our name on side work, it is grounds for termination of employment.”

But what about the techs? Why do they continue to “work off the clock” if they know it is wrong and could result in immediate termination? The NEWS asked for and received feedback from several present and former technicians who agreed to discuss their reasons, but only if their identities remained anonymous. Their side of the story provides an interesting perspective to that of business owners.

One technician was very blunt about his reason for working off the clock. “Money,” he said. “It’s why anybody does most anything. It’s cash free from withholding and many times free from the scrutiny of a spouse who wants a new countertop.”

CASH IS KING

In the 2006 article, a contractor talked about how moonlighting affects employees who legitimately work 40-hour weeks and need that steady income to support their family. One tech interviewed for this story said that a lack of 40-hour work weeks is what motivated him.

“I’ll take side jobs if I’m not getting my 40 hours a week because it’s too slow,” he said. “My bills don’t understand it’s slow. They also don’t understand no or super small pay raises.”

Another technician was more descriptive.

“The biggest reason I did sidework was I could not make ends meet on less than 40 hours, on substandard wages, or with the cost I incurred for my benefits package,” he said. “I was always irritated with the number of people that were in my eyes administrating rather than facilitating getting the job done.

“The overhead that the technician supports is sometimes staggering, yet I never really felt that I was credited for bringing in the bacon for the company. They never sent home the parts guy early, and heck, the dispatcher never worked under 40 hours. But at the end of the day, who is paying her salary? It is not hard to get a little disgruntled.”

One contractor quoted in the earlier article said that it takes a lot of money to support a technician, including supplying a good benefit package, truck, and tools. But that argument is countered by a technician who said he has to provide a lot of these things himself.

“I pay 60 percent of my insurance plus dental - all out of my pocket,” he said. “I have to drive my own vehicle to work and have my co-pays at the doctor’s office. I don’t mind coming in to work or even working late but my wages aren’t even keeping up with inflation. Have you checked the price of milk or gas lately? Has my boss ever heard of inflation? I know equipment prices keep going up, but employers raise their own prices to stay afloat and pass all extra expenses to employees. They don’t even give bonuses during the busy season when things are good.”

While contractors pay a lot in overhead, including fees and licenses, some techs simply bypass the fees and paperwork and save money.

“I can get by without a local business license if I do less than $4,000 of business per year,” said one tech. “The only rub is that I do not carry any liability insurance, nor do I file any taxes under the business. I do only quick in and out stuff - low liability work - mostly on my mother-in-law’s rentals and friend’s houses.”

WHO IS THE CUSTOMER ANYWAY?

The question remains: does working off the clock actually take money out of the contractor’s pocket and put it into the worker’s pocket? Or were these side jobs going to wind up in the hands of the lowest bidder anyway? In many cases, the customer looking for the best price is often a friend or relative of the worker, in which case, contractors tend to relax their rules a bit.

In the 2006 article, one contractor said he allows employees to work for relatives, as long as he has been informed of it. One tech said he gets work from referrals by family members and also spreads the word around his church. Another said, “If a technician works in the trade, friends and relatives know about it and seek that person out,” he said.

“But there are also cheap customers, looking to save a buck, who turn to the tech and ask him to do it on the side after receiving a quote they don’t like. A customer gawks at the contractor’s quote, and the tech or installer responds with ‘I can do the same work for you for X amount.’”

Techs who return to a customer with a better price are doing their best to steal that customer from their employer. The reasons could be that customers have balked at the price quote or the tech is getting back at the boss for not providing better wages and benefits. Or, as has been said before, it is simply because the tech wants to make more money on the side.

“I only do work for people I know, or who really need my services,” said one tech, “meaning they either know me and wouldn’t get me in trouble at work, or they’re cold, or have had several bad experiences already, and are really glad to see someone competent show up. And, I’m not out screwing people, so there’s no reason for them to consider calling the office and blowing my cover.

“And if I have a callback, I take care of that, too. I own up to any mistakes I make.”

WHAT IS THE LIABILITY?

The tech quoted above admitted that mistakes can be made and he takes care of them. But contractors are fearful that employees working off the clock can make mistakes that put their lives, the lives of the customers, and the reputation of the employer in jeopardy. In the article published in 2006, one contractor said that most moonlighting jobs he’d seen were done half way, leaving room for failure and exposing the occupants to potentially lethal consequences. He held a meeting to warn employees of the consequences of their actions.

But that doesn’t concern this tech, who said he had a reputation for doing quality work that even the local mechanical inspectors were used to seeing. “I have never pulled any permits for any sidework I have done,” the tech said. “I have done a handful of jobs on additions, second floor add-ons, etc. I have the customer pull a home- owner’s permit and tell him what to say to the inspectors. Every time I have passed with flying colors. Remember, I do this every day.”

If supply houses claim any liability for selling equipment to moonlighters, there are ways around that, too. While contractors have said they will take their business away from suppliers who sell to moonlighters and suppliers claim they will contact an employer for approval prior to selling to an employee, the practice still continues.

“I will usually go to a supplier who is very connected,” said a tech. “I even get equipment for other people because there may be too many restrictions on them from their own bosses; or they just don’t know how to get connected.

“The supply houses will sell to you, especially if it is going to move their equipment. Most owners put up blocks and restrictions, but it doesn’t take long to get around them. They may tell the supply house not to sell to employees but the guys behind the counter just create a different paper trail and owners will never know.”

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR

Techs who work off the clock are able to do so undetected because they have set up their own unwritten rules for being cautious. Some of the techs interviewed for this article shared their thoughts on flying under the radar.

“It’s don’t ask - don’t tell,” said one tech. “Do not use the company truck, uniform or tell side job customers who you work for. Just tell them you are so-and-so’s brother. Don’t take side job calls on the company phone, use your personal cell phone.

“I’ve seen several people get busted doing side work for a company’s customers, mess up the job, and then the customer calls the employer and complains. It seems like most people get busted that way, or by running their lips.”

One tech said he feels secure with his anonymity because he didn’t do the same type of work that his company does. “I did work that my company did not do,” he added, “which was market refrigeration and kitchen equipment. My company did HVAC exclusively. Even then, through his industry ties my boss found out. But he wasn’t mad at me in the least that I know of, in fact he never asked me about it. However, he did ream out the guy behind the parts counter that sold me the equipment.”

One tech gave a very simple way to fly under the radar. “Work nights and weekends when other contractors are closed,” he said.

TECHS SUGGEST WAYS TO ELIMINATE MOONLIGHTING

While the urge to earn an extra income will never be totally eliminated, there are ways to limit the temptation. Contractors quoted in the 2006 article generally agreed that providing a good wage and benefits package, proper training, and year-round work are keys to keeping technicians happy. One contractor said that allowing sidework to close relatives is another way to reduce moonlighting.

Here are some of the suggestions by techs who have been quoted anonymously in this article:

• Give people the raises they deserve, and if you can’t, tell them what they are worth and where they fit in your company’s long-term plan.

• Find a way to track your vehicles if the techs take them home. It is expensive for some, but it surely helps keep techs honest. Some personal use is to be expected when you make techs drive your vehicles home.

• Ensure that the techs you employ are either moving up in the industry, or are seasoned techs. Those that sit comfortably doing regular maintenance work will more likely moonlight as service technicians, taking work away from your company.

• Label your vehicles, mark them, and use your license number somewhere on the vehicle. Clearly mark your vehicle. If it gets associated to a work site while your tech is moonlighting, then it will likely make it very obvious to you in a much faster manner should your techs be seen working somewhere. My old company used unmarked vehicles, but if they were clearly labeled as being the property of a certain company, it makes it hard to perform related work without it coming back to haunt the individual.

• Just because someone is young don’t make him or her work their way up to an income level they should already be at because of their ability.

• Treat people fairly. (If someone is working for me and he or she needs something, I find a way to make sure they get it.)

• Be generous with pay and bonuses. Hand out bonuses when they don’t expect it for something they didn’t expect it for anyway.

• Make sure you have a company where people want to work because they are taken care of.

• Don’t ever make someone come to you for a raise. Always approach them first.

• Put together a tool bonus program at the supply house. Every tech likes their own good tools.

• Don’t just send the smartest tech to a class, who can turn around and pass that knowledge on to other techs. Make them all feel empowered and send every tech to training classes.

• Pay for attendance to a sporting event that includes a cash stipend to cover food, parking, etc. Or give a gift certificate to a nice restaurant as a bonus instead of a free ham or turkey.

One former tech who is now a business owner has seen the working off the clock from both sides and added this perspective.

“You can argue that moonlighting takes money away from the company and that’s a valid reason,” he said. “But for me, I am more concerned with my industry getting a bad name from shoddy craftsmanship. I fault both the employee and the employer for not training a better tech to begin with. Your work is your reputation.

“If I had technicians that did side work, I would want to be proud of their work, as well as see any improvements I could adopt into my own installations or service. But many employees don’t understand that it is the vision and drive of the employer that is required to run a top-notch business in order to pay his bills. Most employees only think as far as collecting a paycheck that will always be there regardless of the employees lack of vision and drive.”

Publication date: 01/28/2008

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