Editor Greg Ettling talks to associations across the country about how they're dealing with the problem of unlicensed contractors.

Unlicensed contractors have been a problem in the drilling industry ever since the first drilling contractor's license was issued - and it's not going away anytime soon, if ever. It's a serious issue; when you add up the defrauding of consumers, tax evasion, employment violations, poor workmanship, and violation of building codes and permit rules, it's not a pretty sight. But as serious as the problem is, it's fallen down the charts in the past decade.

It's a two-front battle, and that's a notoriously difficult situation. Fortunately, in this situation, success on one front helps put pressure on the other. If water system owners get the whole story, they'll be less likely to hire an unlicensed contractor. If unlicensed contractors see that the consequences of running a midnight drilling operation are rather harsh, they'll probably look elsewhere to ply their skills - such as they are. Bruce Widener of the Georgia Well Drillers Association tells us, "As an association, we've helped pass legislation that allows the confiscation of unlicensed contractors' rigs and fines up to $5,000 a day. And this year, a bill was passed that says if they are caught without a license, contractors have to wait up to two years before they can apply for the license. Also, we no longer have to go through the district attorney for this problem. We can report straight to the Department of Natural Resources."

Preaching to the Choir

Our friends at the California Groundwater Association note that to prevent contamination of ground water and to ensure that their water system will operate properly for a reasonable period of time, well owners need the services of a qualified ground water professional. Too many property owners have paid dearly for using unlicensed contractors. While licensing isn't necessarily a measure of competence, it does imply a certain level of professionalism and suggests that the contractor is committed to the job.

The unlicensed contractors generally are uninsured and probably lacking in experience. They often rely on high pressure or scare tactics and "special offers" to get business. Hiring an unlicensed contractor can bring a well owner far more risks and headaches than savings. The owner can be held liable for on-the-job injuries, taxes or insurance. The owner can be held accountable for not complying with the applicable building codes and correcting problems with workmanship or warranties. Owners even can be held accountable for an unlicensed contractor's illegal acts. People hiring unqualified contractors often mistakenly believe that they are protected by their insurance policies. A large number of unwitting property owners have been dragged into time-consuming and very costly litigation involving unlicensed contractors. If an unlicensed, uninsured contractor is injured on a person's property, that person may be responsible for any injuries or disabilities that might occur. In addition, the owner probably has no protection in the event damage is done - to anyone's property - during the course of the project.

Often, the end result of using an unlicensed drilling contractor is a bad job or the wrong approach to the project, which will cost the owner so much more in the long run. There is little recourse for the owner should a problem arise. In a dispute with a licensed contractor, the owner can go to the licensing agency. Some offer mediation services or maintain a guaranty fund to help consumers. The licensing authority can suspend or revoke a dishonest contractor's license. While this doesn't necessarily ensure a contractor will play fair, it certainly gives the contractor considerably more incentive to do so. But these regulatory authorities cannot take this sort of action against unlicensed contractors. Well owners often find that their only recourse is a civil lawsuit - usually a big waste of time. In some areas, a contract with an unlicensed contractor not only is unenforceable, it's illegal to begin with.

Preaching to the choir, indeed. But your trade associations (local, state and national), licensing board, chamber of commerce and other local business groups can be of great assistance in this area. They'll have literature that you can include in your sales and marketing kits to help spread the word to well owners. But you have to help them help you; become part of the synergy that feeds momentum for maximum impact. Support the groups that are working to maintain the professionalism in the industry that you've strived so hard to establish.

Success Stories

While most people acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, they also note that it's not as high on the priority list as it once was. They report that the licensing was established for good reason and that after the initial hurdle of enforcing it, the problem would reasonably be considered to be under control.

A typical scenario is described by Nebraska Well Drillers Association executive director Lee Orton. He says unlicensed contractors "have always been a problem to some extent. We want to make sure these unlicensed drillers are reported to the authorities. Sometimes an individual drilling contractor feels that it isn't his responsibility to turn someone in. If someone is reluctant to get immediately involved, we're happy to serve as an intermediary to make sure that information is passed on to the state. The first thing that happens is that a cease and desist order is issued, and most of the time, that effectively takes care of it. Once in a while, it goes beyond that, but not very often. It was a more common problem back in the early days of licensing, but the laws have been in place for quite some time. We really don't have much of a problem now. I'm not telling you that the problem has gone away completely because it hasn't. But it's much less of an issue than it used to be."

Taking his positive approach to the situation even further, Orton says, "Ideally, our involvement as an association would be helping unlicensed drilling contractors get their license."