ACCA’s Todd Washam recently began serving as the association’s vice president of public policy and industry relations. In this role, Washam will be the group’s lead on federal policy issues.
With contractors facing a set of challenges that seems to expand more often than it shrinks, The NEWS asked Washam for a couple of predictions and an update on ACCA’s activities in Washington.
The NEWS: With a few big topics taking up a lot of the headlines lately, I thought we might flip this around and start from the other direction. If the tariff situation resolved itself next week and a federal HFC phasedown strategy became law the week after that, what would you and your team be focusing on with regard to public policy and legislative goals?
Washam: Workforce is still the No. 1 priority for our members. We can do all we want on energy efficiency programs, refrigerant issues, and tariffs, but finding and retaining competent employees is our contractors’ No. 1 concern.
We have been working with the White House the past couple of weeks on the Pledge to America’s Workers initiative. We’ve been doing some surveys of ACCA members to see how many staff they want to hire and train over the next five years. We’re going to aggregate all of that information. Then we’ll have a few select members from the D.C. area go and take a pledge at the White House on how many people we want to hire and train for the next five years.
We’re also helping our contractors understand what Perkins funding means to them. We have a packet, kind of a guide for contractors, that we’re putting together to help them get more involved with their local trade and technical schools. There’s also a best practices guide for how to set up a school-to-career co-op program if you’re a business working with some of your local schools.
We need to help our contractors push these schools in the right direction and focus on the skilled trades. HVAC needs to hire 115,000 people over the next few years.
The other issue we’re looking at is protecting the tax cuts that are, without sounding too partisan, under attack by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives. So we are playing defense on that, including attending House Ways and Means committee hearings.
The House is also looking at the estate tax, of which a full repeal has been one of ACCA’s priorities for a long time. House Democrats are trying to roll back the partial repeal that was included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
The NEWS: Am I right in thinking that there’s a sort of backstop in the Senate aligned with ACCA’s position on these issues, and then even more of a backstop at the White House?
Washam: Yes. But you can get really cute with legislation. For example, are Republicans willing to stand up for the estate tax if it’s tied to a disaster package that pushes a bunch of money into their state or their districts? Right now, the repeal of the estate tax provisions and the attack on some of the tax cuts is tied to a disaster relief bill.
So we’ll see what happens. Legislation is a funny thing, and when money starts showing up in people’s districts, you’ll see where priorities lie.
The NEWS: ACCA has its own political action committee (PAC). Can you discuss any of those efforts?
Washam: Yes, we are working with our membership committee, which oversees our PAC contributions, and we are using our PAC to target people who we need to support our industry. We are looking to spend some money over the next 16 months or so.
We have a bipartisan list of senators and representatives that we are looking to support for the 2020 election with direct campaign contributions. Usually in increments of $500 or $1,000, or even $2,500. It depends on what rank they might have in Congress, what their committee seats are, etc.
Tomorrow, we are going to be giving a donation to somebody who is working on association health plan legislation. We want to support those efforts and help move that legislation. That’s another priority for ACCA.
The NEWS: What would be the 30-second explanation to a contractor for why that policy win would matter to them?
ACCA: It would mean ACCA can offer health insurance through the association. If we have 50,000 people as a pool through our member contractors and their employees, that would give us a lot of buying power to negotiate good rates. That’s one of the reasons the federal government offers very good health care to federal employees, because they have a lot of buying power and can negotiate good rates.
The NEWS: Any other priorities on the health care front?
Washam: Opioid issues. That’s something we continue to work on. Not only is that a health care issue, but that’s a workforce issue. ACCA has been working with Congressman [Markwayne] Mullin of Oklahoma, who is a fellow HVAC contractor. He’s been one of the lead people in fighting the opioid epidemic.
The NEWS: How did ACCA get involved with this issue?
Washam: During ACCA’s 2017 board of directors’ fly-in in Washington, this issue came up because one of our contractors from North Carolina went off script and talked to his Senate office about the opioid issue. I was in that meeting and I thought, “Wow, this is something that we need to address.”
The NEWS: It’s powerful when the concern can come up directly from the membership like that.
Washam: Yes, we did a panel discussion at our 2019 conference in San Antonio, led by Maria Taylor [business management editor for The NEWS]. Out of all the sessions I sat in on, I learned the most from it.
We had one contractor from Washington state, one from Virginia, and one from North Carolina, and they were talking about the opioid issue and how they try to help employees who may have been injured on the job avoid a problem.
We’ve taken some of the points made there and shared them through our blog. We’ve also provided some tips for how to deal with employees who may be addicted or suspected of being addicted to opioids. And we work through our partners at the Men’s Health Network on some of these communications tips, too, because we’re not doctors here.
Our partners at Federated Insurance have been instrumental. Our six-step process that we have communicated to our members is actually recommended by Federated Insurance. They helped us draft that.
The NEWS: Let’s shift to HFCs and their phasedown. Would you talk about the concerns for a contractor or a distributor in terms of training, installation, transportation, safety … all that kind of stuff, without a comprehensive federal resolution on this issue?
Washam: There are a lot of unknowns here. Some, I don’t exactly know how they will be negotiated, whether through the regulatory process or through industry consensus. Safety is ACCA’s priority when it comes to introducing ASHRAE-designated, mildly flammable A2L refrigerants.
Some of the issues that need to be answered: For distributors, how will these products be transported on their trucks? You see oxygen tanks going to and from hospital offices or doctor’s offices; they’re on open-air trucks. Propane is on open-air trucks. We don’t know if these A2L refrigerants will have to be carried on open-air trucks if they’re above a certain volume.
We’re not sure if technicians or distributor representatives are going to have to have special certifications from the Department of Transportation. If contractors have some of those products in their warehouse, if they have a certain amount, will they have to have special OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] certifications, or different fire extinguishers? Will their buildings have to be specially vented? We don’t know.
Manufacturers, I understand, are concerned about how these products will be transported on their tractor trailers. Some manufacturers are looking at whether the packaging carrying equipment with a charge in it will have to be vented. Will the tractor trailers that are pulled by the semis have to have special ventilation? There would be costs there, and we don’t know what they are.
Technicians who are carrying a few jugs of refrigerant in their truck hopefully won’t need special certifications or have to stop at railroad crossings, because they’ll be under a certain volume. But we don’t know.
The NEWS: In terms of a timeline for that legislation, it’s been worked on, but it hasn’t been introduced yet. What do you feel like the odds are that it can get all the way across the finish line, knowing the potential political obstacles?
Washam: I think we can get it across the line. At ACCA, we’ve educated about a hundred members of Congress, whether it was jointly through the PHCC [Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association] and HARDI [Heating Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International] Fly-Ins or our own meetings. Three of us on staff have done about a hundred meetings, educating mostly rank-and-file members of Congress who need to know what they’re going to be voting on. We meet primarily with staff at this point because we don’t have a specific ask.
We do point out that, yes, there are concerns with the introduction of mildly flammable refrigerants. However, ACCA’s members by and large, if they’re doing the install and the service work, they’re not too concerned about it as long as the product safety standards and ASHRAE standards are all complete.
The NEWS: Good to hear.
ACCA: They feel confident, and their technicians feel confident. The problem is what happens when a professional contractor goes to a house and is working on a system that they’ve never worked on before, and they don’t know if there are mixed refrigerants in that system. So that is a concern. And I don’t know how you overcome that.
The big issue with the potential legislation remains federal preemption (whether federal phasedown legislation would prevent individual states from exceeding the federal targets and timelines).
The environmental groups do not want it because they want to push states to go beyond what Congress authorizes. Most of the HVAC industry would like to see federal preemption in there, so that we can have a guaranteed uniform playing field. That would prevent states like California, New Jersey, or New York from going beyond what Congress authorizes.
For ACCA’s part, everybody understands that this is going to happen no matter what, whether it’s led by certain states or whether Congress takes action. Our members believe that Congress and the Trump administration should be the ones setting this timeline, getting this phaseout scheduled, because we have a more business-friendly administration right now.
The NEWS: Finally, is there any sense of when the Department of Labor’s updated “overtime rule” will get finalized?
Washam: No. The public comment period is closed now. We’re just waiting on the rest of the regulatory process. It will ultimately have to go through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), and OIRA is the one government agency that can hold up regulations for as long as you could possibly dream of.
The NEWS: Not actually kill it, but just kind of table it?
Washam: Yeah, just sit on it and do nothing. OIRA sits within the Office of Management and Budget. Mick Mulvaney oversees the OMB and is also the acting White House chief of staff, so you would hope there will be no problem there. But if the White House is unhappy with the final proposed rule for some reason, it could sit right there without going into effect.
The NEWS: What is ACCA’s feeling about this change?
Washam: We’ve supported the updated overtime rule. Our membership committee felt unanimously that this was a reasonable increase for overtime rates that hadn’t been updated since 2004. The new minimum exempt wage would be $35,000, give or take a little bit, which was much more reasonable than the $47,000 that the Obama administration had proposed.
I think that’s an important thing to know about ACCA members. They want to do what’s right. They understand that things like updating the overtime rules need to happen, so they look for what’s reasonable for businesses to adopt. Their first instinct is not always, “Kill this.” It’s more like, “Let’s see the impact, let’s see what’s right for our employees and our business, and let’s make a decision based on all of that.” And that’s how these discussions were with the overtime rule.
Publication date: 7/15/2019