Do contractors dock workers' pay?

My neighbor resisted paying a plumber for a recent service call for a water heater
because she’d been told there was no charge to simply look at it. It turned
out that her earthquake shut-off valve was the problem, but the
guy didn’t tell her what, if any, the cost would be for him to re-set it.
After he re-set it, he wanted $120.

The owner of the company told her he’d have to take the $120 out
of the guy’s pay if she didn’t pay it.

Is that legal?

I am fairly certain the contractor was lying–that it was just a gimmick to induce her to pay.

How long did it take him to reset it?

And it’s almost certainly not legal to reduce a worker’s pay in that manner.

Well, it took maybe 2 minutes to reset it, and he actually re-lit her water
heater pilot which took 2-1/2 minutes tops. But when he said he’d go
look at the earthquake shut-off, shouldn’t he have said there’ll be a charge
if he does anything to it? Ideally, he would’ve told her the gas company
would do the same thing he did for free, and give her the choice.

If the plumber is a contractor and not an employee of the company, they may very well be under some sort of “you don’t get paid until we get paid” type of arrangement.

Which is now a very common arrangement in a lot of the on-call trades like plumber, electrician, locksmith, etc.

It doesn’t sound like the worker did a great job - he did half the job in my opinion. In a service business communication is important, if he failed to communicate what the charges would be, then I wouldn’t be losing a whole lot of sleep over whether he takes a hit for that mistake or not.

I think the owner is probably trying to guilt the OP a little; but why should he have to pay the guy who didn’t do a sufficient job?

It also could be a situation where the SOP of the business is to do the work and not discuss the charges with the customer in the hopes they will just pay; but you do not know any of that for sure.

The thing is, the plumber **did **do something. Specifically, he did something the person who hired him didn’t, and possibly couldn’t, do - which was re-light the water heater.

Quite often, skilled tradesmen do seemingly simple things, and part of their pay is that they know how to do that simple thing. In this case, she hadn’t read the manual to her water heater, which clearly explains what the valve is, and how to re-set it.

In one of the Feynman books, he had learned to crack safes. Once, some officer on the Manhattan Project had locked his safe and forgotten the combination. A locksmith was called. After assuring everyone that this would take some time (so they went away) he sat down and used the default combination to open it.

In the manual that comes with the safe, it clearly explains how to re-set the combination, which virtually nobody. The locksmith knew this, the officer didn’t. The locksmith deserved his pay because he did what he was hired to do - open the safe. He did it more easily than expected, because he knew something the safe owner did not.

In this case, she should pay for two things - having hot water when he left, and a lesson on the importance of reading the manual.

He did, she didn’t, pay the man. She is wanting to avoid paying this guy for his work because she is feeling embarrassed that it was so “simple”.

Any of us who know our trades well are going to know “simple” things that those who do not know the trade never learn.

What she should have been charged was the minimum service charge. It did not take 4 1/2 minutes as the OP suggests; it also took a half hour or so to drive back and forth from the customer’s site and fill out the paperwork back at the office… Is $120 reasonable for a minimum service charge for a plumber or not? Around here it would not be.

But absolutely the plumber should have discussed possible costs.

Yes, travel to and from site is part of the cost of the service.

I am reminded of a joke/parable:

A water heater wasn’t working and a plumber was called in to fix it. The plumber pulled a small hammer out of his toolbelt, gave the water heater two light taps, and it started working. He then presented a bill to the homeowner for $500.50.

The homeowner was livid. “So much money for so little work?! Where is that all coming from?”.

The plumber then gave him an itemized bill:

[li]2 taps @$0.25 each : $0.50[/li][li]Knowing where to tap and how hard to tap: $500[/li][/ul]

Half the job? Sounds like he did what he was supposed to do - make sure she had hot water.

I suppose he could have futzed around down in the basement with his wrench, bubble-testing all the pipe connections, etc. But he knew the problem and fixed it, and now he’s going to get screwed?

I have no doubt that the owner of the company is going to take it out of the plumber’s paycheck. It may not be legal, but his only choice is to either report the boss to the state (and probably lose his job) or sue the boss (costing far more than whatever portion of the $120 would go to him, and still lose his job). So this woman’s embarrassment is going to cost the plumber no matter what.

My issue is that the customer was not told the price beforehand. To me this is a huge part of delivering service. I think the price sounds perfectly reasonable to me for what the guy did - I am very familiar with the cost structure of a service business and the fact that the charges for seemingly small things are completely justifiable and necessary for a service business to be profitable.

My issue is with one thing only - not telling the customer what the charge would be.

If it were me, I would probably just pay it and be glad that the thing got fixed. On the other hand, I think having an issue with not being told up front about the cost is completely valid.

Exactly right.

I have a very embarrassing story from my early days as a homeowner. One day the electric outlets in all my bathrooms stopped working. I called an electrician. He went down to the circuit breaker board and showed me the GFI circuit breaker that controlled all those outlets. He showed me it had tripped, and showed me how to reset it. I could easily have done it myself, but because I didn’t know how (until then), it cost me a chunk of money for the electrician house call.

ETA: To answer Mr. Nylock’s point, I do have to say he did quote me what the price for the house call would be beforehand, to be fair.

$120 is certainly reasonable for resolving the issue. Poor communication on the plumbers part is an issue but he did work he should be paid.

I’ll visit a customers house to look at the layout and what needs to be done at no charge. If I pull a single tool out of my truck the minimum charge will be $150. I’m usually very clear on that and it’s never been an issue. With a lot of my customers it is not clearly communicated and money is never discussed. They call me,I show up, there is going to be a bill.

Thanks for all your comments.

One postscript: she has since talked to a neighbor who’d used the same
company and the same worker came out. In their case, the plumber capped a
sprinkler and refused payment when he offered to pay for it. No service charge at all.
So their policy must vary!

I suspect some other dynamics are going on. A company that doesn’t even have a basic service call charge? Perhaps they are trying to drum up business. Capping a sprinkler head may only take a few minutes (I use to own an irrigation company). Perhaps he was in the area, and they are a good customer. That’s good business.

Or, if you happen upon a plumber or electrician that is say doing a job for your neighbor, ask a simple question and they fix it in two minutes I could see that as a freebie.

How should the plumber have handled this? He checks things out, finds nothing wrong, then decides he should check the shut-off valve. Should he then stop what he is doing, go to the homeowner and say, “I’m going to check your shut-off valve. If it needs resetting, I’ll charge $120 to reset it.” At this point the homeowner would very likely say, “Right! The shut-off valve! I should have thought of that. I’ll go check it.” And now the plumber doesn’t get anything, despite the fact that he was the one that really fixed the problem by knowing where to look. As others said, she was paying for his expertise, not his labor. He did do something. He knew where to look. She didn’t.

That doesn’t address whether the plumber should get docked for the service call. But she should pay.

This is a self defeating argument to me. If the amount is material, the plumber should say what the charge will be - it may have a bearing on what the customer decides to do. he doesn’t have to say what needs to be fixed - he can just say the repair charge will be x. If it is immaterial, then he shouldn’t be to upset about not getting paid.

Really, there should be a minimum service charge for going out there in the first place.