Opinion: An Argument Against Flat-Rate Pay
September 11, 2018—In The Chronicle Herald, one writer called out flat-rate pay at automotive repair shops as "unfair but legal," claiming it is unfair to both customers and technicians.
Ratchet+Wrench is posting this article so shop owners understand what opinions are being fed to the public. This is a mildly large newspaper and this opinion likely resembles many more out there.
Below is Nick Gallant's entire post. You can also read it here.
Feeling ripped off by a car mechanic is a much too relatable topic for many of us. And automotive repair is one of the top professions hit with smear campaigns.
Smearing auto repair workers is a powerful tool to sell “do-it-yourself” products. Smearing auto repair workers helps manufacturers build a culture of “get rid of your old car before its warranty expires and buy a new one.” You may have seen a news report getting good dirt on smaller repair shops with hidden camera investigative pieces.
For all this, have you ever seen or heard tell of what it is like to spend a day in the life of a car mechanic? No one talks about what’s behind the scenes with these “scam artists,” and no one cares.
I want to introduce you to a term known as flat-rate. It is the name given to the way most mechanics are paid. It is a deliberately convoluted system that resembles commission work, but with a few unfortunate differences.
Imagine working for a commission, then having the terms and payout of that commission decreased substantially after you’ve completed the work. Imagine being offered a commision so low, it is not worth your effort to do the work, but refusing that work would result in termination of your employment. Imagine being put in a position of keeping quiet when repairs are sold to customers who do not need those repairs, under threat of receiving no paycheque.
Flat rate is used at nearly every automotive dealership in the province, and the rest of the country, too. Only a handful of high-end luxury car dealers, like Audi and Jaguar, do not use flat rate, to my knowledge. Most Canadian Tire and Mighty Auto franchises use flat rate. And where there is flat rate, there are always mechanics being forced into a position of working for free on a daily basis. Small independent shops generally pay by the hour and therefore treat employees fairly.
When you bring your car to a repair shop, there will generally be a preliminary quote issued that details the complaints you have, along with the charges for the shop to inspect your vehicle. You may be asked to sign this quote; the desk clerk may sign it as well. Have you ever noticed the mechanic is nowhere to be seen and does not sign the quote?
The desk clerk may try to upsell you on maintenance services and flushes your vehicle needs, to be performed by the mechanic. Again, there is no mechanic present, and no mechanic has yet been consulted about the state of your vehicle.
Once the shop has determined what repairs your vehicle requires, they will contact you to issue an additional contract for that work. Once again, no mechanic is present to sign this document. At this time, it is common for the desk clerk to offer to waive inspection fees if you agree to have the work done. And can you guess if the mechanic has any control over whether or not they just inspected your car for free while expecting to get paid? When the desk clerk waives the inspection fee, they forfeit the mechanics’ commission for looking over your car. Without asking the mechanic.
Finally, if the shop has commenced tear down of your car for repair, and found additional problems lying beneath the service, they may try to honour the original quote that you signed by juggling numbers, discounting parts and, you guessed it, waiving more of the mechanic’s commission, without asking them.
Labour boards have investigated flat-rate mechanic shops and found the system to be unfair but legal. These “unfair but legal” rulings come after boards had barely scratched the surface of what happens in a repair shop on a day-to-day basis. Once an official has made such a ruling, it is difficult for them to hear continued arguments without being heavily biased. “We understand the mechanics are upset with an unfair system, but we have found it breaks no labour law,” they say. Once they have chosen to ignore further complaints, then the automotive repair shop managers are free to abuse their employees pay cheques with impunity. And they make good on that.
Other officials have bought into the snake oil sales pitch that commission-based labour is a great way to keep employees productive, and the only mechanics complaining are the lazy ones who want to stand around on their phone all day and get paid big bucks. And to be fair, there are a handful of employees to whom this applies. Commission-based labour means that people standing around not working aren’t getting paid. But flat-rate, commission-based labour has too many loopholes that can be exploited by managers; it doesn’t belong in a fair-practice workplace. Cooks do not get paid by the plate they serve. Accountants do not get paid by the numbers they calculate. Roofers do not get paid by the shingle they lay. Every other skilled trade pays their workers a day’s pay for a day’s work. And somehow they all manage to profit.
A petition that asked MLAs to draft a bill that might require a day’s pay for a day’s work has gone unanswered. The Trade Union Act does not allow for the forming of a mechanics’ union. Nor could mechanics afford aggressive negotiations by strike/walkouts. Employment lawyers demand $400 an hour for consultations, an impossible price for a blue collar worker living paycheque to paycheque. The CRA ignores requests to take control from greedy managers and let us be independent contractors. And the 1,000-plus men and women working in this province as flat-rate mechanics cannot just all pull out and find other employment; it would take years to create that many new jobs for skilled tradespeople in this province. We need more people talking openly about this industry; mechanics are not the crooks they are made out to be.