Gaming the System: Part 1 – How Much is Too Much

by Mick Rhodes | mickhodes@claremont-courier.com

Alison Roberts just wanted the pesky clog in her sink to be gone.

It was a Saturday in mid-May and the 81-year-old Claremont resident had exhausted all home remedies. She googled “plumber near me” and the best search result – with a Google rating of five stars – was Rooter Hero Inland Empire, in Montclair.

She called and a technician arrived shortly after. He told Mrs. Roberts, who lives on South Mills Avenue with her 83-year-old husband Glyn, that their P-trap in the kitchen should be replaced, along with part of the vent pipe.

It was a job that even Rooter Hero’s chief operating officer called “a minor repair,” so Ms. Roberts was stunned to receive a $2,082 bill after the technician worked a total of six hours.
Numerous local plumbers from large and small companies and a representative from Plumbers Union Local 398 confirmed the price was too high. But what drove the whole event — that Google search — turns out to be the real story.

After weeks of research and dozens of interviews with the likes of former clients, attorneys, consumer advocates and the California State Contractor’s License Board, what started as an inside look at Rooter Hero’s billing practices, eventually became widespread fraud involving false online reviews and an accomplice exposed. brought. marketing company.

The following is Part I, the COURIER’s four-part investigation into how a company set up a business to abuse the system.

How much is too much?
With their sinks at the ready, 17-year-old Claremont residents Alison, 81, and Glyn Roberts, 83, both retired, googled “plumber near me.”

The best search result was the Montclair location of Rooter Hero, a Nevada company with 10 locations in California and Arizona (but none in the Silver State).
The Roberts are admittedly less than skilled on the internet. They don’t use Yelp.

Had they checked Yelp, they would have discovered hundreds of great reviews, as well as many outraged customers who used words like “scammers”, “a business of scammers”, “scams” ​​and “elderly abuse” in their scathing reviews of Rooter Held.

But they didn’t, and they were relieved when the Rooter Hero tech, Giovanni Saavedra, showed up at their house on South Mills Avenue that afternoon.

Mr. Saavedra quickly determined that the sink P-siphon and part of the cast iron vent pipe, which he said was corroded, both needed to be replaced.

The Roberts say they did not receive a written or verbal estimate from Mr Saavedra before he started the job. Rooter Hero says otherwise.

Mr. Saavedra worked under the sink for a while, replacing the black ABS P-trap. He then cut a small hole in the outside wall to access the vent pipe. He cut out a piece of cast iron vent pipe about 18 inches and replaced it with a piece of new ABS.

The Roberts say Mr. Saavedra was there for two hours. The tech says four. Anyway, at the end of that Saturday, he handed the elderly couple the bill: $2,082. They were shocked, but still felt obliged to pay, and Mr. Saavedra used their debit card for a prepayment of $1,874.
The tech returned Monday and spent two hours plugging the hole.

The company very generously charged the price for the parts at $100, including Rooter Hero storage, and charged the Roberts $1,982 for six hours of labor, or $330 per hour.
Is $330 an hour a reasonable price to pay a plumber?

Rooter Hero Chief Operating Officer John Bergeron believes so.

“Yes,” he said when asked about the hourly rate. “That sounds about right.”
Mr Bergeron said all Rooter Hero jobs are billed at a fixed price, including labor and parts, set out in a closely monitored company pricing book. The fixed price for this job was $2,082.
Fair enough.

Or is it?

“Two thousand dollars doesn’t seem appropriate for that small job,” said David Hanson, Business Representative for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 398, the union that represents plumbers in the greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. “Of course I really feel like that particular bill sounds pumped. I feel like they’ve added extra activities there to drive up those costs. I’d love to see that prize book.”

Other experienced people from the industry agreed.

“That’s insane,” said Gary May, 67, owner of Ray May Plumbing of Montclair, a 60-year-old community mainstay. “Because it won’t cost you that much to put a truck and a mechanic on the road. Most technicians earn between $25 and $35 per hour. That is outrageous.”
Other plumbers, of outfits large and small, agreed: The bill sounded unreasonably high.

The commission sales model

So why is Rooter Hero charging so much?

The COURIER’s interviews with Rooter Hero customers, online posts from former employees and consumer reviews, numerous complaints from the Better Business Bureau, and a revealing 37-page California State Contractors License Board document detailing numerous allegations of misconduct related to its business practices. the company, all make it clear: Rooter Hero technicians offset their modest hourly wages with a generous sales commission, incentivizing them to sell as many upsells as possible.

“What happens is commission creates thieves,” said Larry Enright, owner of Rancho Cucamonga-based Option One Plumbing. “I don’t pay” [my employees] minimum wage. Many of those who do pay minimum wage plus commission are now doing what they do to just let that employee look for that commission. So they are constantly trying to sell or oversell things.”

It’s not just the competition from Rooter Hero — who can have an axe, of course — that says the commission model causes abuse.

Several former Rooter Hero employees who post employee reviews on Indeed.com are calling out the company for what they believe are unfair business practices. And while the majority of employee reviews on Indeed come from streaming, happy techs who brag about their salary and the company’s generous commission structure, the dissidents are pointed in their critique.

“This company focuses more on selling jobs and getting more money out of the customer, rather than the technical aspect of being a plumber,” read a former Orange County employee. “I liked that I could potentially make a lot of money because I also have a sales background. Unfortunately, with a company that focuses primarily on sales rather than product, there is always the risk of ignoring ethics and honesty when there is money to be made. That is the case with this company. I tried my best to sell jobs fairly and make my money the right way, but it seems like almost all the workers around me are completely cheating the system to make more money; that is, put roots and other objects in pipes, cause leaks, [and] lying to customers about potential risks to avoid.”

Another read: “I worked at the Orange County, California location and quickly learned that the biggest liars and scammers are very well promoted and compensated for abusing the elderly.”

You say incentive, I say commission

Why are there so many similar online reviews of Rooter Hero describing some sort of bait and switch strategy, a scenario repeated in a 37-page document from the California State Contractors License Board? https://tinyurl.com/CSLB-Rooter-Hero-Accusations.

According to the former employees of Rooter Hero, it’s simple: commission sales.
Mr. Bergeron declined to use the word “commission” when asked about the company’s compensation structure.

“It’s an incentive,” he said. “Like I said, it’s complicated, okay? It’s in line with all the other people in the home care industry. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. I’m not going to get into the weeds. Do you want to walk in and apply as a mechanic? Then we will share the salary plans with you.”

The COURIER’s survey found that commission sales for service technicians are common in the plumbing industry. Under this scheme, the more a plumber sells, the more he or she earns.

Mr. Bergeron was asked if Rooter Hero’s “incentives” are the same.

“Why don’t you report what your other companies tell you?” he said. “I told you what ours is. And I’m not going to give you the actual construction of it, okay?”
Is Rooter Hero’s Incentive Program a Trade Secret?

“Yes. What we pay our people is, you know, confidential, okay?” said Mr. Bergeron. “I’m not telling you what my pay plan is. And I’m not asking you what yours is. They have an incentive to keep costs down, okay, and to get the job done efficiently and quickly.”

The COURIER told Mr Bergeron that he would assume the terms were interchangeable as he declined to answer the question of whether Rooter Hero’s “incentive system” equated to a commission.

“You can take whatever you want, Mick, okay? If you want a quote from me, don’t misquote me.”

The COURIER assured Mr Bergeron that he would not be misquoted, and told him he appeared to be avoiding the question.

“That’s your verdict,” he said.

Read part two of this series here.

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