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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Mechanics Antonio Riga, left, and Whitney Brownell start work on an oil change and maintenance check on a customer’s vehicle at Stop & Go Instant Oil Change in Brattleboro.

News / Column

Some jobs you can’t phone in

Plumbers, mechanics, and other tradespeople are still working — carefully — through the pandemic

With additional reporting by Commons news editor Randolph T. Holhut. For more information about businesses and their permission to operate, visit the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Stay Home Stay Safe FAQ page.

DUMMERSTON—At first, it was a drip, and then many drips, and then it was the threat of a burst pipe in the bathroom ceiling. We were sequestered, but was our plumber?

When you own a house, you have a Rolodex of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, dirt-and-gravel specialists, car mechanics. These contacts come with the territory. Over the years, you build up a list of reliable people to call in an emergency.

And many of these people are still on the job, exempted from Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” emergency order in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

When I called our plumber, Dave Finlayson of Homestead Heating and Plumbing LLC of Brattleboro, I learned we were lucky. On his phone message, he said he would come only in an emergency for people who were already his clients.

He has been in the Rolodex for a long time.

When he called back, he said he could come in two days. We put a roasting pan under the leak and emptied it every other hour until Finlayson’s truck pulled up in the driveway.

“Everyone healthy?” he called from his truck before he would come close to the front door. When I assured him of it, he came in, took a look at the problem, and started in on fixing it while I asked questions about tradespeople working in a pandemic.

* * *

First of all, Finlayson said that he knew three local plumbers who had already stopped working, and he noted that the big companies “have already laid off their plumbers.”

He said he worried that the plumbing supply companies will shut down soon, and he won’t be able to get parts. Then he would have to stop working, too.

“The independents think you’re a fool to pass up free government money,” he said, citing the unemployment funding that the state is offering. “But what about the people who need you?”

As for health risks, “I make sure before I go inside a house that everyone is healthy,” Finlayson said. “I would just as soon not get sick.”

One of his clients, he said, is an emergency department nurse who told him that she is seeing less business than usual, because people are staying away to free up the medical professionals who were dealing with patients with COVID-19.

Now, if anyone shows up at the emergency department, “You know they’re sick,” the nurse told Finlayson.

He said some electricians are working and that he still sees trucks from Southern Vermont Sprinkler, the company that installs and monitors sprinkler systems, on the road. At least two septic system companies, Best Septic Service LLC of Westminster and Steve’s Septic Service LLC of Vernon, are still out there pumping, he said.

“I can pick and choose the houses I go into,” he said. “I’ll only come for a catastrophic emergency. If the people have two floors to their house, they can stay on one floor while I wear a mask and gloves to work on the other.”

“But if people have emergencies, like you did, they should call,” Finlayson said. “They should not try to fix things themselves. You could do a lot of damage and hurt a lot of people in a hurry.”

* * *

Plumbing isn’t the only job that you can’t telecommute to. Auto repair is also on the list of essential services that are exempted from Scott’s order.

At Stop & Go Instant Oil Change & Repair in Brattleboro, manager Whitney Brownell and mechanic Antonio Riga mind the store during a rainy April afternoon.

The shop is usually buzzing with activity. On this afternoon, the three repair bays were empty.

“The amount of business we get fluctuates, but business has been off a lot [since the pandemic],” said Brownell.

But the shop remains open and maintaining its regular hours, albeit with as much social distancing as can be done in a garage, including wearing masks, disinfecting credit cards, and keeping contact with customers to a minimum.

When vehicles show up, as two did during the hour that The Commons visited, Brownell and Riga spring into action to do oil changes and maintenance checks.

During the lulls, Riga painted one of the repair bays while Brownell did some cleaning and took inventory.

“While we have the time, we’ve been shutting down one bay at a time to do some painting and cleaning,” Brownell said.

Brownell said she doesn’t mind the idea of working while others stay home.

“We’re just trying to help,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #557 (Wednesday, April 15, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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