Careful Who You Hire

With hundreds of trees down and holes in people’s roofs all around the CSRA, experts warn residents to make sure you hire licensed, insured and bonded workers

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Careful Who You Hire

The sound of cracking limbs is a noise that Ronnie Pinion won’t soon forget.

Pinion, like many residents in the CSRA, anxiously listened last Wednesday night as huge pine trees began tumbling over and crashing to the ground all around his home in the Montclair subdivision.

l was lying in bed in the pitch dark and I just kept hearing the limbs crackle and then all of a sudden, pop, they would begin to fall,” Pinion said. “The trees and limbs would hit the ground and shake the house. All I could say was, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ It was like a bombshell went off.”

In all his 55 years, Pinion said he had never experienced an ice storm as bad as the one that hit the Augusta area last week.

It was devastating,” Pinion said, standing in his back yard surrounded by broken tree limbs. “See that tarp over the roof? That’s where one came down. I mean, huge trees were coming down all around this neighborhood. I think we got the worst end of it in this area. We were in the dark for four and a half days.”

His wife is in a wheelchair, so when the power was still off by Friday night, the couple decided to go stay with her sister in Evans.

She had electricity, so we went to stay with her,” Pinion said, laughing. “We were looking forward to a good night’s sleep and we woke up to an earthquake. It’s been a wild week in Augusta.”

Just a few doors down on Martha Lane, Phillip Cameron and his friend, Josh Yon of Aiken, were working to repair damage to the corner of his 65-year-old mother’s home.

This neighborhood got beat up pretty badly,” Cameron said, adding he has lived in Augusta his entire life. “I was stuck at work from Wednesday evening until six o’clock Friday morning because of the storm. So, we’re finally making repairs to my mom’s house now.”

Cameron, 38, joked that he was bribing his friend with beer to help fix his mom’s roof and remove some of the broken tree limbs. But Yon, 31, said it didn’t take much convincing for him to make the trip from Aiken to help out.

For the first few days, I couldn’t leave my house in Aiken because my truck was completely iced shut,” Yon said. “We had no power, so I got to sit on the couch in the freezing cold. It’s good to be out.”

Recil Thrash, 84, is a long-time resident of Crane Ferry Road and could barely recognize his street when he returned from a trip to North Carolina late last week.

It was a mess. A real mess,” Thrash said, shaking his head. “There were power lines down and limbs broke off the trees and I got a huge pine tree in the back and the whole top of it came out. I just feel lucky that the large section of the tree didn’t come down on my house. And, with no electricity or heat, it was God awful cold.

“The trees and limbs would hit the ground and shake the house,” said Montclair resident Ronnie Pinion. “All I could say was, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ It was like a bombshell went off.”

Honestly, it was about as miserable a thing as you can undergo. And now, everybody has to clean up the mess.”

Steve Johnston, vice president and southeast division manger for the Bartlett Tree Experts, which is currently servicing neighborhoods throughout Evans, Martinez, Aiken, Augusta and North Augusta, says he understands homeowners’ frustrations.

But he warns against residents making snap decisions about hiring crews to clear their fallen branches, trim storm damaged trees or clean up their yards who might be unlicensed, unbonded and uninsured.

If they get hurt or if they damage the property, the insurance may not cover it,” Johnston said. “If they say they are insured, you want to make sure the policy is still active.”

Johnston says many problems begin when local landscapers decide they are qualified to do tree removal work.

Over the next several weeks, you are going to see a lot of landscapers starting to do tree work,” he said. “Here is the problem: The area doesn’t have enough licensed contractors who have the proper insurance to handle the entire area.”

Therefore, many landscapers servicing the CSRA aren’t going to know how to properly remove or treat storm-damaged trees, he said.

One lady we saw the other day, they didn’t just come and clean up the branches that were on her house, they started taking down every tree in her yard,” Johnston said. “Now, that’s her prerogative. And after a storm like this, I understand and I feel that 100 percent. However, that’s a shame. Every tree doesn’t have to be taken down.”

Bartlett Tree Experts, a company which has been around for more than 100 years and has offices in 29 states, Canada and Great Britain, uses certified arborists who can inspect residents’ trees for defects and conditions that could cause trees to fall in the future.

For the next two weeks, we are going to be concentrating on getting trees off of houses and cleaning up debris and hanging materials,” Johnston said. “But probably after the next three or four weeks, then it will be about addressing the health of the trees and returning them to their vitality. Because it is important for people to know that not every tree needs to be removed.”

Instead, Bartlett Tree Experts may recommend appropriate treatments such as pruning, installation of supportive cables or braces, and even lightning protection systems to secure a tree damaged by the ice storm.

“Honestly, it is the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Johnston, vice president and southeast division manger for the Bartlett Tree Experts. “There are hurricanes that people would argue that would rival this… But this is, by far, the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen in the Southeast in my career.”

And there are a lot of trees in this area that were impacted by last week’s harsh weather, Johnston said.

Honestly, it is the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen,” Johnston said. “There are hurricanes that people would argue that would rival this. Personally, I didn’t work in upstate New York and Maine a few years back when the ice storm was up there and collapsed all the transmission lines. I wasn’t there for that. But this is, by far, the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen in the Southeast in my career.”

In order to help mitigate the damage, Bartlett Tree Experts have sent crews from as far as Oregon, California, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the CSRA.

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By midweek, we will have over 60 people and 28 trucks in this area,” he said. “They are coming from all over to help out.”

Jon Frederiksen, who owns Tree Works Inc. in Decatur, Ga. and is a certified arborist, says even if landscapers tell homeowners they are insured, residents need to make sure the company has workers’ compensation.

What people don’t understand is workers’ comp is 81 percent of the payroll,” Frederiksen said, pointing to some workers that were sent to Evans this week to help with the storm damage. “One of these guys get $100 a day, but I pay $81 on top of that for workers’ comp.”

The reason workers’ compensation has drastically risen over the past 10 years is because of the rate of injuries on the job by untrained landscapers attempting to remove trees, he said.

Georgia had two fatalities in Atlanta last month alone. One in Roswell and one in Alpharetta,” Frederiksen said. “So, if people wonder, why does tree work cost as much as it does? That’s why. Workers’ comp is based on the amount of fatalities and accidents per area. And in this business, you can get hurt. The incidents of getting hurt is really high, especially if you are not properly trained.

And if someone doesn’t have workers’ comp, the homeowner, the company owner and everybody who is involved can be sued if someone is injured,” Frederiksen said. “You can be held liable.”

Some obvious signs to look for when hiring a company to do tree maintenance is all employees should be wearing hard hats, as well as ear and eye protection, he said.

In May 2013, the Metro Spirit published a cover story on some of the problems residents face when hiring workers who may not have the proper insurance or licenses.

Phae Howard, the executive director of the National Center for the Prevention of Home Improvement Fraud, acknowledged there were some serious perils of home repair.

“If someone doesn’t have workers’ comp, the homeowner, the company owner and everybody who is involved can be sued if someone is injured,” said Jon Frederiksen, who owns Tree Works Inc. in Decatur, Ga. “You can be held liable.”

Any contractor you deal with that walks in that door is a potential problem,” she told the Metro Spirit last year. “So the more you educate yourself prior to dealing with that person, the better you position yourself.”

Consumer education is especially important because she said as soon as you allow anyone on your property to fix or repair your home, it can have serious consequences. And according to Howard, whose Atlanta-based nonprofit coaches homeowners so they don’t become victims of home improvement fraud, those consequences are getting larger and harder to prevent.

I’ve been told by various sources that it’s estimated to be a $70 billion a year problem,” she said. “We know mayors, wealth managers, attorneys, doctors and police officers who have been victimized, so everybody’s at risk.”

That being said, certain groups are at greater risk, including seniors, who are often more trusting and frequently don’t report being taken advantage of out of embarrassment and a fear that friends and family will assume they can no longer take care of themselves.

Also, first-time homebuyers who have never dealt with workers and don’t know the process are particularly vulnerable to scams, as are storm and disaster victims and the physically impaired, she said.

A contractor is going to show you his card or he’s going to show you his insurance information, but you need to verify everything and don’t assume that the guy standing in your yard is the guy he says he is,” Howard said. “Ask to see his license. Take a picture of him and take a picture of his truck. Believe you me — if he sees you doing that and he’s planning on scamming you, chances are he’s going to take off.”

With so many people working in landscaping and the home improvement industry, many of whom are not legitimate, simply asking for a license and proof of insurance is no longer enough, since often the documentation you’re presented is not valid.

Back in the day, we used to say get three references and check with the Better Business Bureau,” Howard said. “Well, you’ve got to do that and so much more now because the scams are incredible. It’s amazing how they pull these things off.”

Certainly, the temptation for easy money drives corruption, but so too does the high cost of doing business properly. Being properly licensed, bonded and insured isn’t cheap, and the more unscrupulous contractors are out there, the more of a disadvantage the legitimate operators suffer, she said.

No matter how many times you tell them the lowest bidder is not the best bidder, they’re going to go with the lowest bidder because that’s all they can afford,” Howard said. “So it’s a very big problem.”

“Georgia had two fatalities in Atlanta last month alone. One in Roswell and one in Alpharetta,” said Jon Frederiksen, who owns Tree Works Inc. in Decatur, Ga. “So, if people wonder, why does tree work cost as much as it does? That’s why.”

Rob Sherman, Richmond County’s development manager, told the Metro Spirit in May that the complexity of the licensing requirements further muddies the water for homeowners. Certain occupations require certain documentation, and the local agency isn’t always in possession of what you might think it is.

A permit is not needed for tree service,” Sherman said. “For landscaping at a commercial site where they’re moving ground around, they would have to have an approved site plan, but not a permit. So they would have to go through Planning and Development and have a site plan approved.”

Tree removal does require a business license, but that only means the business is paying an occupation tax the same as any other business.

And if you home was damaged in the storm and you need repairs done, there are different requirements for the specific work being done.

According to Sherman, an addition to your house would require a permit, but somebody coming in and putting up scaffolding to paint your house would not. However, a painter is considered a handyman or specialty contractor and required to have a surety bond, which covers code violations and penalties, if he’s doing any kind of incidental repairs along with the painting.

A surety bond says the work that you do that has to comply with codes will be done in compliance with those codes,” Sherman said. “In the event that it’s not and you refuse to correct the code violations, then the owner can get estimates from other contractors to correct those violations and can file a claim against the bond for that amount.”

That’s far different than a performance bond, which protects the homeowner against an uncompleted project.

Even so, there are frightening gaps in coverage for those who haven’t done their homework.

With a surety bond, if a guy comes in and takes off your roof and leaves — we’ve had it where the bond company said that it wasn’t a code violation [not to have a roof], it was a lack of performance,” Sherman said. “But had he put the roof on, but not done it according to code, that would have raised an issue.”

As far as homeowner protection, Howard advises residence contemplating any kind of work done on their homes to contact their own insurance agent.

You really need to involve your insurance agent,” she said. “He’s an expert in insurance and he’s licensed in insurance, so he can explain things to you and advise you on your best position when dealing with contractors. Certainly, if the contractor is doing something that may be fraudulent, you may not even be aware that he’s doing it, but the person who pays the price for that is you, because it’s your policy and they may consider dropping you.”

“Workers’ comp is based on the amount of fatalities and accidents per area. And in this business, you can get hurt,” said Jon Frederiksen, who owns Tree Works Inc. in Decatur, Ga. “The incidents of getting hurt is really high, especially if you are not properly trained.”

The Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection recommends contacting local trade organizations like the Home Builders Association of Georgia to help find contractors and then the Better Business Bureau to check those contractors for complaints. State-issued licenses can be checked at the Secretary of State’s website, sos.georgia.gov, though certain specialty occupations — painters, drywall contractors and roofers, for example — are not licensed by the state… though, of course, they can advertise themselves as such because of the business license.

Other advice involves common sense, although sometimes common sense is difficult to employ against slick operators. That list of warning signs includes unsolicited work, an unlisted business, introductory or temporary offers, an insistence that you pay in full before the work is completed or that you pay in cash.

The contractor may say, ‘I’m going to do your house and I’ll give you a steep discount if you act as a reference for your neighbors,’” Howard said. “If you do that and he takes your neighbor’s deposit and runs off with it — now, your neighbors are looking at you like you were involved.”

Howard also said to beware of contractors who tell you they’ll fill out your paperwork for you or pay your deductible or write it into the cost. And anyone operating out of a truck who pulls up to your curb offering to fix a problem you didn’t even realize you had is probably bad news.

There are a lot of excellent, reputable, legitimate contractors out there, and we applaud them all the time,” Howard said. “But homeowners need to have an understanding of how to protect themselves not only from fraud, but to cut down on the frequent miscommunication between them and the legitimate contractors that can be problematic as well.”

Over the next several weeks, more and more residents in the CSRA will look up at their trees and wonder if there is a danger that more limbs could come crashing down.

Brian Maxson, a safety coordinator and safety training manager for Bartlett Tree Experts, said hiring a certified arborist to inspect those trees can make all the difference in the world.

For example, Maxson said an arborist should not use climbing spikes when performing maintenance procedures as they create wounds in stems that can lead to insect and disease infestations.

That’s simple science,” said Maxson, who has worked for Bartlett Tree Experts for 20 years and is a graduate of Penn State University. “It has to do with tree biology because a tree is not like a human being where it regrows an outer layer like we can with our skin. When a spike goes in a tree about half an inch, that is an entry point for decay, insects and disease.”

Following a major ice storm like the one that hit the Augusta area last week, the last thing a homeowner wants is to further weaken the trees.

Instead, we pull ourselves up the tree using a method called body thrusting,” Maxson said. “That requires us to basically pull ourselves up using proper gear that doesn’t injure the tree.”

Bartlett Tree Experts also warns residents to never utilize the services of an arborist who proposes topping trees as a solution to storm damage prevention.

Topping leads to problems later in the life of the tree and is expressly prohibited by industry standards, Maxson said.

We are trained to fully inspect the trees and recommend appropriate treatments,” Maxson said, adding that, obviously, after severe weather like last week’s ice storm, not all trees can be saved. “But we want to help the homeowners save the tree whenever possible. That’s why we are in the business. We are here to help.”