On March 25, the Auto Care Association (ACA) hosted a virtual town hall entitled “COVID-19 and the Auto Care Industry as an ‘Essential Service’” to address the daily disruptions to operations that the automotive and collision industries are experiencing as a result of the ongoing pandemic and the resulting government regulations. Auto Care’s Stacey Miller summarized the intention of the webinar and introduced Bill Hanvey, president and CEO of the Auto Care Association.
Hanvey welcomed attendees to “our new reality, or virtual reality as it were,” noting that he’s been encouraged by the amount of collaboration within the automotive, collision and auto care industries over the past couple weeks as associations have worked together to ensure the businesses they represent are recognized as essential services. “We ensure motorists are on the road and that deliveries are taking place, and we’re dedicated to that.”
“Things are constantly changing [in relation to COVID-19]; the situation is very fluid,” Hanvey continued. “We all must understand that, but our job at the association is ensuring that you have the latest communications because we want to be a useful resource to the industry. I applaud Aaron and his team for doing an outstanding job, along with our communications team, ensuring you have the latest information.”
Aaron Lowe, senior vice president, government and regulatory affairs, agreed, “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but our governance team is doing our best to resolve issues that come to our attention, but in many cases, this is a state or municipal issue in determining what is defined as essential services. Still, there are important developments on the federal level that influence what happens on the state level.”
On March 19, CISA issued guidance declaring that auto repair workers should be deemed essential, including employees who repair and maintain vehicles, aircraft, rail equipment, marine vessels and equipment, and infrastructure that enables operations that encompass movement of cargo and passengers. Many states are now referring to this guidance in the event of shutdown orders, but more clarification from the Department of Homeland Security may be forthcoming.
Industry associations, including the Auto Care Association, are collaboratively submitting letters to government organizations with influence to ensure that all segments of the industry are properly identified as essential services. The association is also attempting to obtain clarification on supply chain coverage through either DHS or congressional action.
Lowe then introduced Tom Tucker, director, state affairs, who began by stating, “This past week has seen unprecedented actions by governments across the country, issuing and updating emergency orders to mitigate the spread [of COVID-19]. We want to help the industry better understand these orders and what qualifies as essential services.”
For the latest updates on individual state orders, Tucker directed participants to the State Tracker, located at autocare.org/coronavirus. Information is updated daily.
Discussing directives from the state, Tucker briefly discussed the expanse of governors’ state of emergency declarations which include travel restrictions and mandatory business closures, but guidance from Homeland Security has identified auto repair and maintenance facilities, as well as manufacturers and distributors, as essential services allowed to operate under the emergency orders. Every state has declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic and lack of federal guidance.
Additional agencies issuing important guidance or offering clarification include the Department of Health, the Department of Business and Economic Development, the Department of Emergency Management, and the state police.
According to Tucker, Auto Care is addressing the issue by working with federal state and local officials, as well as state associations, partner organizations and outside lobbyists, in order to leverage all relationships and ensure everyone “understands that automotive services are essential,” he said.
Looking at some of the executive orders that have been issued, Tucker pointed out that the language used is intentionally vague and, due to the process moving faster than normal because of the current situation, mistakes do happen, such as auto repair not being included as an essential service in several states’ initial order. “Most automotive services, which includes, repair, retail and related functions such as manufacturing, distributors and suppliers, have been deemed essential,” Tucker said. “In many cases, businesses can apply for exemptions if they aren’t deemed essential initially, but if you receive a shutdown order from your state that you want to appeal, let us know, and we’ll try to help.”
Tucker continued, “Relax, we are working on your behalf, but sometimes the ambiguity in the language works for your benefit. Common sense dictates you can’t exempt vehicle repair without including the supply chain, including retailers, suppliers, distributors and manufacturers. We’ve been making that case to legislators around the country, and once they hear it, they get it.”
Although automotive services have been deemed essential, Tucker still emphasized the importance of paying attention to the details. “This is still a public health crisis we’re facing,” he reminded attendees. “Follow social distancing guidelines, and adhere to guidance on the number of employees allowed in facilities. Disinfect all counters, doors and other frequently touched areas to protect yourself, customers and employees, and utilize technology tools to limit face-to-face interactions.”
In states that have issued shelter-in-place orders, essential employees are needed to open shops, and if they are pulled over, they should be prepared to provide their name, number, the facility’s address and contact information, and a statement verifying they are an essential employee. Employees can also reference the Executive Order and contact a shop manager to verify their information.
Tucker concluded his portion of the presentation by stating, “The situation is fluid and changes daily, or even hourly. If your business receives a shutdown order from police, show them the governor’s Executive Order, and contact Auto Care to mediate on your behalf. Be sure to use common sense to protect yourselves, customers and employees because we need you guys, not just today but for the next 40 years. Now, relax and take a deep breath! We will get through this together.”
Lowe added, “We shine at helping our customers and the public, serving fleets of ambulances and keeping health organizations running. We are all trying to safely keep everyone on the road. Being considered essential comes with a lot of responsibilities, and we need to make sure we are doing all we can to preserve the public health.”
Lowe returned to discuss Federal COVID-19 legislation, including the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided support for relief efforts and testing, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which “has more of an impact on your businesses,” according to Lowe.
The FFCRA requires companies with fewer than 500 employees to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to employees unable to work or telework due to COVID-19, as well as a 12-week FMLA benefit to individuals leaving to care for a child whose school or daycare is closed due to the novel coronavirus. There are caps and possible exemptions that may apply to smaller companies if compliance would jeopardize the company’s viability.
As of March 25, Congress is still working on Phase 3 of the Federal COVID-19 Legislation which will be an approximately $2 trillion relief packaged aimed to help blunt the economic fallout from the coronavirus. The stimulus packaged is rumored to include up to $350 billion in small business aid as well as direct payment to U.S. taxpayers. “It’s good news for the economy that they’ve agreed to a package, and hopefully it will get passed soon,” Lowe said, promising, “As soon as we have details on the plan, we’ll provide them on our website.”
Auto Care’s Virtual Town Hall concluded with a question-and-answer session. For up-to-date information on COVID-19 from the Auto Care Association, visit autocare.org/coronavirus.