Shop owners ‘cautiously optimistic’ as Auto Body Commission conducts final meeting

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Aryan Rai
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — Representatives of the auto body and insurance industries were asked to recommend “alternative solutions” as a chance to break the deadlock on the issue of low labor rates during the final meeting conducted by the Special Commission on Auto Body Labor Rates.

Members met at the Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, a vocational school in Marlborough, to assess if the low labor rates are dissuading young technicians from entering the trade.

“The site visit emphasizes how important it is that we do something for this trade that seems to be dying,” said Rep. Bruce Ayers, D-Quincy. “Compared to 15 to 20 years ago, these kids today are not focused on this trade because they realize that the amount of money they need to spend on tools, and the time they have to put in, once they graduate, they can just go into another field and make much more money.”

After the site visit, the commission members congregated in a room on the school premises to conduct a final meeting.

“Sometimes if there is an issue there is all kinds of blame to go around. I am just hoping that this committee that is informed and in charge can come up with some kind of a solution,” said commission chairman Rep. James Murphy, D-Weymouth.

It was the last scheduled meeting conducted by the special commission which will now begin its deliberations and issue a report on bill H.1111 before the June 30 deadline. The proposed bill aims to adjust the labor rates according to the rate of inflation. The increase, however, will not be immediate but over a “corrective period” of two years.

The alternative solutions, requested by the chairman were meant to be a chance for the auto body industry and insurance companies to find a mutual solution before the clock runs out and the Legislature must intervene.

“Our No. 1 (alternative) solution is that just pay us equal to, not more than, what consumers and insurers already pay to mechanical shop for the same process, which is north of $100 (an hour),” said Evangelos “Lucky” Papageorg, executive director of Alliance of Automotive Service Providers.

The auto body industry has offered two more alternatives: either the current labor rates are increased over a corrective period of three years instead of two, or they are increased immediately by an inflation-adjusted value of $33 an hour.

“What we want is what we originally submitted, which is bill H.1111. But we are fulfilling the chairman’s request to give him other options to consider,” added Papageorg.

Although the auto body industry has actively participated in negotiations, the insurers have yet to do so.

Thomas Ricci, the owner of Body and Pain Center based in Hudson, is familiar with the pattern. He recalled a similar negotiation arranged back in 2009 where insurance and auto body representatives were to get in a room and work out a solution.

“Two days before that meeting, I got a memo that stated, ‘We will not be speaking about the labor rates.’ So here we are, some 14 years later, and there is no guarantee that they are ever going to talk about it,” said Ricci. “The concern is that we have done this before. We continue to come to the table. At the meeting the other day, there were multiple discussions by the auto body industry but not a peep out of the insurance companies, not a word.”

“They ([insurance companies) are never going to be ready to negotiate,” said Craig Winnie, the owner of King Autobody in Northampton, who has run his business for 48 years, and is hoping for change but “with caution.”

As the deadline for the commission report approaches, members of the auto body industry are rooting for the bill that promises change but are not convinced it will come through.

“Keeping the track record in mind, it’s (labor rates) probably going to stay the same as it has always been,” said Lisa Russell, general manager of Acme Automotive Center in Northampton. “Even if they do decide to increase it, it will not reach the pay that the other states have.”

This article originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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