February 28, 2002

4,000 hours of training to change a light switch?

  • New L&I policy requires a license for simple electrical work

    For 27 years the state Department of Labor and Industries has maintained a policy of minimal enforcement of the electrical licensing laws for minor and simple electrical work being performed by building engineering and building maintenance staff and others.


    Among the reasons for this has been the fact that current state law, drafted in 1974, omitted reasonable work experience requirements for those who only perform minor and routine electrical work — such as replacing like-in-kind light switches, wall sockets and lighting ballasts.

    The current state statute contains a work experience requirement of 4,000 hours or two full years before one can sit for one of the electrical license exams. This is significantly disproportionate and unreasonable for those performing only minor electrical tasks and jobs like home appliance repair.

    In addition, current testing standards were designed for those who work full time as electricians on new installations, major remodels, and major electrical equipment and system components.

    However, those who perform minor electrical work are required to meet the same training and experience requirements.

    The 2-year requirement

    Without a change in the law, we all might as well throw away our dishwasher or garage disposal next time they need repair, even simple repair. It will be cheaper for us to purchase a new unit than to pay for the labor of the electrician and trainee that might have to come out to repair these appliances.

    Enforcement to the letter of the current law would require any trainee be supervised for two full years before he or she could perform an electrical repair or replacement on these units.

    The problem arose in the past year when L&I announced that as of Jan. 1, 2002, it would begin the application of fines and penalties for persons and property management companies, appliance repair companies and others that are not in full compliance with all electrical licensing and contractor registration requirements.

    The reasons for the announced policy change have been explained as an attempt to comply with Governor Gary Locke’s directive on regulatory reform and also in response to threatened lawsuits against L&I for non-enforcement by certain interest groups.

    The policy change runs counter to the report issued by the Washington Competitive Council, formed by Governor Locke, that recently stated fundamental changes must take place in how our state does business if it is to remain competitive, especially in the regulatory arena.

    The new enforcement announcement would require anyone performing even simple electrical tasks to obtain a specialty electrician’s license through the state, such as the (07) specialty license. However, in order to obtain the trainee card to qualify to even take the (07) exam, a trainee has to first demonstrate that he or she has worked 4,000 hours or two full years under the supervision of a licensed electrician.

    It doesn’t take 4,000 hours of electrical training to change a light switch.

    Policy change’s fallout

    The scope of this policy change, if enacted by L&I, would affect a wide range of persons and firms that have staff performing minor electrical work in such settings as commercial real estate, multi-family real estate, some appliance repair, septic tank repair, and many more types of repair and replacement involving electrical components.

    To the credit of L&I, Chief Electrical Inspector Ron Fuller organized and conducted a series of stakeholder meetings over the past several months designed to develop proposed legislation that would allow the department to correct the onerous and unreasonable training and experience requirements in existing law and to bring more persons into compliance with state law while maintaining public safety.

    In addition, L&I created a window of opportunity to grandfather past work experience. However, that window has now closed, leaving still a great number of workers and their employers in a difficult situation if the proposed legislation does not become law.

    The bill that emerged from the stakeholder meetings is Senate Bill 6630. After an eleventh-hour negotiated agreement between the real estate industry, the electrical union and L&I, the bill passed out of the Senate Feb. 18 on a vote of 45-3.

    This compromise legislation is not everything everyone wanted, but it represents honest compromise from most of the groups that met several times in the past year to find a reasonable solution.

    As the bill is passed to the state House, lawmakers there need to ask the same questions their Senate colleagues asked: “Where is the need to burden large and small businesses with this new enforcement?”

    Lawmakers need to ask L&I who came to the table and participated in drafting this bill, who compromised, and what public safety risk is all of a sudden driving the enforcement change by L&I?

    SB 6630 does not contain any mechanisms that would exempt training, testing and safety, but would empower the Chief Electrical Inspector to re-establish modern, fair and reasonable standards that take into account all persons performing light as well as heavy electrical work.

    It should be noted that the current law exempts employees that work directly for the owners of a property from the licensing requirements. However, L&I interprets this exemption very narrowly as a direct employee/employer relationship.

    If an owner of a property has formed one legal entity for ownership and another legal entity for management, the employee working for the owner’s management company does not qualify for the exemption even though he or she in essence still works for the owner, according to L&I. This will surely be tested in court should an enforcement action take place in this situation.

    The adoption of building codes and regulations promote public safety and bring value to our living and working places. But regulations can and should be designed to be fair and reasonable while ensuring an appropriate level of safety.

    The electrical licensing laws need to recognize the status quo of the last 27 years and they must be modified to address today’s needs.

    Rod Kauffman is executive vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle and King County.

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