In an eagerness to help shield larger home improvement and landscaping companies from competition from those with less overhead, several members of the East Hampton Town Board have set out to revise the town’s contractor licensing law. The law would be expanded to include landscapers, lawn mowers, and handymen, who are now exempt. The board has yet to schedule a hearing on it.
Licenses would be required for anyone doing work on another’s house, lawn, or grounds, no matter how small the job, eliminating a loophole in the present law that allows those earning less than $500 per job to avoid licensing. While licensing laws may help protect homeowners from incompetent or unscrupulous workers, the proposed law requires liability insurance, with the Town of East Hampton named as co-insurer. No one would be exempt, including those contractors already registered with Suffolk County, such as plumbers and electricians. The license would cost $100.
Before the town board heaps new regulations at a time of economic difficulty, serious consideration should be given to whether the law may be too restrictive and result in a whole class of workers and entrepreneurs being shut out from economic opportunity.
The few dollars made by taking care of houses or doing odd jobs matter to a lot of year-round East Hampton residents, many of whom would be unable to afford the required insurance to keep doing what they have been all along. In some cases, the insurance requirement could be duplicative because homeowners usually have liability insurance that covers those doing odd jobs or occasional work for hire.
Among those who would be hurt are young people and college students for whom summer jobs such as mowing lawns are a critical part of the budget. For a few, it could even mean the difference between continuing their studies or being forced to drop out. For semiretired people and recent immigrants looking to make a few extra dollars for living expenses, the licensing and insurance requirements could turn them into lawbreakers if they failed to comply or put them out of business. Then there are the commercial fishing families who rely on income from lawn mowing and other home services to compensate for reduced catches, lower daily limits, and ever-shorter harvesting seasons.
Hurt, too, would be residents forced to pay for services in a marketplace with reduced competition in which the bigger operators are able to set the prices. Homeowners should be able to choose for themselves what size firms they hire for routine maintenance and small jobs; they should not have the Town of East Hampton doing it for them.
Not to get all Horatio Alger about it, but starting out small, a person with a truck, a lawnmower, and a single client can begin a path to long-term financial security here, where other opportunities are limited. The town board should think again before putting up this kind of roadblock to success, and even to the American dream.