Unemployed paper-mill worker Mark Driscoll said he was just trying to pay his bills when he started doing handyman work more than a year ago.
EUGENE — Unemployed paper-mill worker Mark Driscoll said he was just trying to pay his bills when he started doing handyman work more than a year ago.
Driscoll, a North Bend resident, said he was unaware the state of Oregon requires people who do any kind of construction work for pay, including handyman-type fix-it jobs or minor remodeling, to have a state contractor's license.
So when Driscoll, who did not have a contractor's license, solicited work via the Internet on the advertising site craigslist, state construction regulators noticed him and fined him $600 for violating state law.
The recession has pushed many Oregonians besides Driscoll to try and make ends meet by hiring themselves out, unlicensed, to fix fences, clean gutters, paint houses and perform other handyman tasks.
Their rising numbers and the ease of advertising on the Internet has prompted a crackdown by the state Construction Contractors Board. State regulators have issued record numbers of penalties to people like Driscoll.
Facing bankruptcy and possible foreclosure on his home, Driscoll said a fine is the last thing he and other unemployed people need as they struggle in the recession.
"They are fining people $600 who can least afford it," Driscoll said. "This is unbelievable. They are throwing people over the edge."
But the crackdown was not inspired by state regulators alone. Licensed handymen and contractors — upset about the chance of losing business to lower priced, unlicensed competitors — alert the Construction Contractors Board when they see ads that fail to list a state contractors license number, which indicates they may be from an unlicensed handyman.
"They are taking work away from me," said Eugene handyman Joe Coelho. "And they want customers to pay cash, so they are not paying any taxes to help out the state or the city."
Shane Navarro, a Veneta-based general contractor who is doing handyman work because of the construction slowdown, said unlicensed handymen work for as little as $10 or $15 an hour.
That's forced Navarro, a father of five, to work for less than he used to.
"My rates used to be $50 an hour. Now they are $35," he said.
State laws requires contractors, landscape contractors, plumbers and other tradespeople to be licensed. The licenses are meant to protect consumers and contractors, regulators say.
To get a license, contractors must have a $15,000 bond that can pay consumer claims related to disputed or shoddy work, plus liability insurance to cover accidents on a homeowner's property.
"Licensing is about financial protections for the consumer," said Gina Fox, education manager for the Construction Contractors Board.
Homeowners who hire unlicensed handymen take chances, said Coelho. The work may not be done correctly, he said, or a job-related accident could become the financial responsibility of the homeowner.
"Most educated people would not think of driving without a license or insurance," Coelho said. "But they have no problem with someone climbing a steep roof without insurance or a license."
Tipped by legal contractors, the state board checks craigslist, free classified publications and even flyers posted on grocery store bulletin boards for illegal handymen, Fox said.
The scrutiny led the agency last year to levy 396 fines against people who advertised or submitted work bids without being licensed, compared to 95 just two years earlier.
Still, Driscoll argues that financially struggling people shouldn't be penalized for seeking work, especially if they were unaware that they needed a license to do handyman jobs.
He said the Construction Contractors Board should give unlicensed handymen a warning before levying the fine.
But Fox said warnings don't work. The agency tried warning people to stop advertising on craigslist, she said, but the warnings were ignored.
Coelho, the Eugene handyman, said unlicensed contractors will charge less than licensed handymen to get jobs, but homeowners often have to hire someone else later to correct problems.
Some fly-by-night handymen will advertise cheap deals to treat roofs for moss or install leaf screens on gutters, Coelho said. But unlicensed contractors often cut corners on moss treatment or install screens that get plugged with leaves, he said.
Residents "really have to be careful who they hire," Coelho said. "And people have to check and see if complaints have been filed against contractors, though customers are often afraid to report shady contractors."
Most of the Construction Contractors Board budget comes from licensing and renewal fees. But the recession has caused a 9 percent drop in the number of licensed contractors from 2007. That decline has shrunk the agency's budget by $700,000 over the past two years.
The 79-employee agency has two less workers than it did two years ago, and is scheduled to lay off seven more employees by June 30, Fox said.
Driscoll said that he suspects that the contractors board is quick to assess penalties so it can collect more revenue.
But Fox said 80 percent of what the agency collects in fines is sent to the state general fund and used for other purposes. The contractors board keeps the remaining 20 percent to cover the cost of collecting fines, she said.
The Home Builders Association of Lane County supports handyman licensing, said Executive Vice President Ed McMahon.
"If a homeowner has a licensed contractor and there is a problem, the Construction Contractors Board is right there to walk them through a claims process, allowing them to draw from the contractor's bond with the CCB for up to $15,000."
"The consumer has no recourse if something goes wrong with an unlicensed contractor" he said.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http:www.registerguard.com