You know how when you have a case of food poisoning, you have a gut hunch of the offending food?
That's how it was on Sept. 12, when I got a tense call from Corey, my right-hand handyman, who apologized for leaving work before he'd finished that afternoon's project, then explained that his abrupt departure was not his idea.
Rather, Corey was told to stop work at my house by an enforcement representative of the Contractors State License Board's fraud team who'd driven up from Sacramento, came onto my property (shortly after I'd left, by the way) and snapped outside photos of Corey replacing an $89 Home Depot bathroom window in an existing opening.
Those photos are the supposedly incriminating evidence.
Then the fraud team member – Jason Stoddard - came onto my porch and asked Corey to let him into my house for a look around. Corey told Stoddard he wasn't authorized to allow anyone in the house while I wasn't there.
Despite that, Corey said Stoddard looked through the open door and commented upon all the work “obviously” being done, and accused Corey of doing it. Corey explained he was just an hourly handyman who worked on many projects around the house. He assured Stoddard that I'd hired lots of licensed contractors, which is an understatement.
Let me just pause here and list the licensed contractors I've collectively spent tens of thousands of dollars on since I bought this nearly 80-year-old house in July and began immediate remodeling: a licensed electrical contractor, a licensed plumbing contractor, a licensed drywall contractor, a licensed pest-repair contractor, a licensed heating-and-air conditioning contractor, and two – count them two – licensed general contractors. Plus, I've consulted with a licensed landscape contractor, a licensed heavy equipment operator and a licensed flooring contractor. Last but not least, I hired a licensed architect who created an engineered plan so I could get a permit to bring light and air and space to my kitchen.
So right now, nobody understands the need for licensed contractors and professionals more than I do.
But I also recognize the need for a handyman (or handywoman); someone to do random necessary jobs that - let's face it - many licensed contractors wouldn't touch.
Here's a sample: Corey ripped out pet-urine-stained carpets. Corey removed rat-infested soffets and old kitchen cabinets. In triple-digit temperatures Corey crawled under the house and climbed into the attic to block rat entrances. Corey loaded my rented City of Redding 30-yard drop box full of demo material, much of it byproducts of the licensed contractors working at my house. Corey made dump runs and picked up materials at the hardware store. Corey removed toilets. Corey cut down a small dead oak tree on the back of my lot. Corey removed a pair of skinny, messy cherry-plum trees from the front yard. Corey sanded an old Douglas fir floor.
The list goes on and on. All were little projects, none of which were worth more than a few hundred dollars in labor and materials each. What's more, this is all above-board work. Nothing under the table. Corey and I agreed that at the end of the year he'd receive a 1099, that this was taxable income as an independent contractor. (In this reference, “contractor” is an IRS term.)
I placed two calls to Stoddard before he returned my call. I told Stoddard it was unfortunate he'd made the unnecessary trip from Sacramento to Redding, because there was some huge misunderstanding. This all could have been easily resolved with a phone call to me, the homeowner, not a gottcha mini-sting on a handyman who works harder than anyone I've ever known. Whoever turned Corey in was sorely mistaken.
I was certain the complaint was intended to hurt me, not Corey. And although I'm just as certain of the jerk's identity, that doesn't help Corey, or me.
All that aside, I was convinced this could be cleared up when I told Stoddard everything I just told you.
I informed Stoddard that as a handyman, Corey needed the work, and as an owner/builder, I needed my handyman to do all those odds and ends.
Stoddard was 100-percent rigid. He insisted that Corey had committed fraud, that Corey's “violation” was “acting as a contractor” by earning more than $500 since July doing work around my house. I disagreed and explained that Corey was never responsible for any one big project (unlike all the licensed contractors, above), rather, Corey's job was to handle a bunch of small tasks. The only thing those small projects have in common was they were all on my property, and they were mostly hot, dirty, sometimes disgusting little jobs.
I explained that Corey is an independent handyman, that he has his own tools, he sets his own hours and he works for others besides me. He's done work like this his entire life. In fact, Corey worked for me for seven years on my Garden Tract house projects, like turning a pair of old bathtubs into beautiful raised herb gardens, and making a sliding barn door for an outdoor storage area, and putting cup hooks beneath my eaves for Christmas lights. I hire Corey because he does great work, but more than that, I like and trust him completely.
Stoddard was unmoved. He said that collectively, Corey's work was one project, and by law, as an unlicensed handyman, he can't be paid more than $500 – labor and materials. He said that Corey was welcome to get his contractors license. The thing is, Corey has no desire to be a contractor. He's happy doing what he's doing.
Stoddard said that furthermore, because of the “obviously” large financial scope of my “project”, from here on out anything done on my house would require a licensed contractor, no matter how small.
You've seen my house. It's modest. I'm not a wealthy person.
I'm doing my best as a single businesswoman to improve a house that was sadly neglected for decades. My restored home will better my neighborhood, which will bring value to my community. Ultimately, this will bring sales tax to the city, and lots of work for people in all phases of construction: from a handyman like Corey to an architect like Tyler Hendrickson.
For clarification, I asked Stoddard if that meant that if I needed someone to install a new doorknob, for example, I couldn't hire a handyman, but I had to hire a licensed contractor? Stoddard said that was correct. Only licensed contractors for anything at my house from now on.
Mind you, I have nothing against licensed contractors, but for something like installing a new doorknob, a licensed contractor would charge two, three or even four times more to complete that task than a handyman. Cost-prohibitive overkill.
Finally, Stoddard said he would proceed with a case against Corey which would be submitted to the Shasta County District Attorney's office that could result in fines and even jail time for Corey. Jail time! Stoddard even mentioned the possibility of a jury trial.
What. The. Hell.
Our conversation disintegrated from there. Stoddard said my “opinion” was wrong. One of the last things he said – before he hung up on me – was that if I didn't like the law, I should change it.
Here's the law I propose: That any handyman or handywoman has the right to work and earn a living – as much as he or she wants, with no limit doing basic handy work. Why not? Why should only licensed contractors have the right to earn more than $500 per job? And as a homeowner, why shouldn't I have the right to choose whomever I want to hire, and to pay a handy person as much as I wish? If I have a project, like building a koi pond, and it takes weeks or even months, I should have the right to invest the way I wish for that project, completed by the person with whom I feel the most comfortable.
A little side note is that sometimes, licensed contractors will bid on and get jobs - painting, landscaping, fence-building, roofing, for example - but rather than doing the work themselves, that contractor will bring a motley crew of sometimes creepy folks into the customer's home to do the actual labor - and some of those folks turn out to be rotten apples. I know of one elderly woman who had this very situation happen with unknown, unsavory workers inside her home doing work arranged by the licensed contractor, and the next day her house was broken into and expensive belongings stolen from places that nobody would have known about except someone who'd been inside to see firsthand.
Give me a known, trusty unlicensed handyman over unknown subbed-out strangers any day. But I digress.
The current California law ensures that people like Corey will never get ahead, and that they will remain in poverty. It ensures that these unlicensed folks may never afford to buy a new truck, let alone a house, or ever feel a sense of financial security and stability. The current law requires that for Corey to make a living, he must go from job to job, new customer to new customer, always staying below $500 in labor and materials, and then move along.
If you think this is just a Corey/Doni problem, you're mistaken. That trusted unlicensed fix-it person you've routinely hired for everything from building a fence to painting your house is in violation of the Contractors State License Board if you've paid more than $500 in labor and materials. And if you have a $501 television you need a handyman to attach to a wall bracket ... bingo! Someone's broken a law before you even pay that person to hoist that TV onto the bracket, because the value of materials exceed California's legal limit.
Corey is a shy guy. He prefers to work alone. He's a man of few words. He's not a hustler, someone who'll go door to door drumming up business. It took me years of hiring Corey before he made eye contact, or even smiled. He loves nature, and he loves his dog Spirit, who sometimes comes to work with Corey.
But most of all, Corey's a gifted, self-taught artist whose real love is making furniture from branches, willows, driftwood, rocks and horns.
Corey's also a tough guy, and no stranger to rough times. But since he's worked with me at this latest house, he's redoubled his efforts to live a healthy life. Every day he worked for me, his radio blasted Christian inspirational music throughout the house, which wasn't my cup of tea, but I knew it was important to him, so the music stayed. And Corey was content.
Thanks to one nasty individual -- and the Contractors State License Board, under the umbrella of the Department of Consumer Affairs -- Corey is no longer allowed to work for me. Stoddard threatened Corey with doubled fines, or worse, if he did.
Corey came by my house this week to retrieve all his tools, as well as furniture samples he'd brought over to show some folks who'd heard of Corey's furniture-making talents.
Throughout this ordeal, Corey's greatest concern was that something bad would happen to me. He keeps assuring me that he'll be OK. As a new believer, his mantra is, “It's all good.”
I appreciate his sentiments, but this is not all good. In fact, this is total bull shit.
All this happened in a city where good jobs are hard to find. All this happened in a city where homelessness and crime and addiction have citizens in a rightly uproar. We complain about people who panhandle and camp illegally and damn it, why don't those people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and find work? Better still, why don't we take a chance and give someone a chance to work for us?
Nice idea, but not so fast. Not unless the Contractors State License Board laws decriminalize hard work performed by those willing to do some of society's hardest jobs. Until then, all of us who hire good people to do odds jobs that exceed $500 over the course of a "project" - and all of those we hire to do those projects - we're all criminals.
Stoddard was right about one thing: If we don't like that law, we should change it.
Let's do it.