New York has been one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 15,000 deaths from COVID-19.
When the governor closed schools March 16, Anthony DeMieri, owner of Frog Hollow Collision in Bethpage, NY, made the business decision to close his shop doors, even though collision repair shops were deemed essential.
“It was a health decision,” he said. “I’m in the middle of New York. It’s a war zone, and these guys just don’t get it. They think it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke.”
Frog Hollow Collision is located just outside New York City, but the shop’s employees live in Brooklyn and Queens.
“When the crisis hit hard, I did what I believed a real leader should do---I protected my guys because they are more important than money; I respect my team,” DeMieri explained. “I worked with these guys as a tech for 20 years before I took ownership of the shop, and we have such a strong bond---I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to them. They’d come to work tomorrow if I asked them to, but I don’t believe that’s in their best interest, just mine.”
Thanks to the additional unemployment benefits through the CARES Act, members of DeMieri’s team are making as much as they were when employed.
“I did what I felt was safest for everyone, and although my techs have the option of taking their tools somewhere else, I can’t stand the thought of losing one of them to this virus because I chose to keep my business open," DeMieri said. "My guys are all making over $900 per week. No shop is open for the benefit of anyone but themselves. Sometimes, we need to be saved from ourselves.
“The auto body industry tends to have that ‘shut up and work’ response to everything, but this time, we need to do the opposite and stay home to help the doctors and nurses be able to keep up with the rate of infection,” DeMieri continued. “I don’t care about politics; I care about my friends’ lives as police officers and medical professionals.
"COVID-19 is real and knocking on my door. Other shop owners have the chance to keep it off theirs, and I urge them, as business owners, to be a leader and help their team survive until the government benefits come through.”
Although the government is offering a variety of programs to help business owners keep their staff employed, DeMieri chose not to pursue that option.
“It means they still have to come to work and continue to be exposed to one another," he said. "We have a small shop, so they can’t get that far apart. Even in a larger shop, everyone is using the same bathrooms, so while you can hope you’re disinfecting effectively, it’s just not practical. COVID-19 is mostly transmitted on metal surfaces which we work with all day, next to each other, lending a helping hand. Whether you like to admit it or not, this job requires us being near one another.
“It’s not essential to fix Mrs. Smith’s Honda Civic when she’s quarantined for the next month," DeMieri said. "Shops claim that they are staying open for the community, but the community is locked down, so why do they need their car right this second? The decision to stay open is based on money---as soon as they run out of work, they’ll lay people off and claim it’s time to err on the side of caution because they’re worried about their techs’ health.
"Doing that means you’re still focused on what’s best for you, not your people. They are being selfish, and people will die for it; we’re feeding techs to this virus. There’s no good reason to tell your employees that cars are more important than their health and well-being.”
In a private message DeMieri shared, a technician in another state wrote, “I wish they’d handle things differently here, but who am I? Just a worker. What am I to do if I tell them to lay me off and they don’t? I work for the biggest dealer in my state, and I’m sure they’re close with the government.”
“This is how techs really feel. They are afraid of their employers," DeMieri said. "Is this doing right by our workers? It’s sad and embarrassing. Shop owners should be ashamed to act like repairing a daily driver’s car is so much more important than their techs’ health.”
Many shops have stayed open around the country in order to provide essential repair services to first responders and other essential personnel. In New York, towns employ their own automotive departments to maintain and repair vehicles for police and ambulances, according to DeMieri.
He also noted several car rental companies are offering free loaners to first responders for a month.
“There’s no weight to that argument for continuing to operate,” he said.
The decision to close Frog Hollow Collision was not an easy one. DeMieri purchased the shop three years ago, and in addition to being in debt, he continues to pay monthly rent on the closed space.
“Going two months without incoming money is horrible,” DeMieri said. “I’m 36 years old and over $3 million in debt. Living in NYC is extremely expensive, and I’m not entitled to unemployment or stimulus payments. Nobody needs it more than me, but what type of leader would I be to ask my guys to follow me into something like this?”
Of course, DeMieri also realizes there’s an economic side to this and he “can’t knock people for needing to bring in money."
"This started as a health crisis, but now, it’s a health and financial crisis," he said. "I’ve been hemorrhaging money to survive, but I believe I made the right decision. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m afraid for my own family, my parents, and grandparents, as well as my employees and customers. I’m not trying to prove that I’m something I’m not.”
DeMieri is concerned for other shops as well.
“We all know the good times don’t last forever and we need to be able to sustain during our downtimes. Many shops were running so tightly that this will be the nail in their coffin---they aren’t going to make it," he said. "I’m also worried that we’ll see people leave the industry altogether which is not a good thing since we’re already dealing with a technician shortage.”
While Frog Hollow’s doors are closed to business, DeMieri is still working on his business. He has been busy retrofitting the shop with glass partitions, sanitizing the shop and preparing to reopen.
“There’s a point where we have to admit that we can’t defeat the coronavirus right now, and we can’t let it destroy our business either," he said. "I’m in the unfortunate position of deciding whether to go out of business or determining how to navigate this, and in a business built on volume and speed, the changes needed to operate will slow the process down. For shops that already struggle, like us, it’s going to be hard, and I hope we can survive it.”
Frog Hollow Collision plans to reopen May 4, and plans to sanitize to the best of their ability, but DeMieri pointed out it will be difficult in this industry because, no matter what employees do in the office, they still have to get in people’s cars.
"Acting like you can completely sanitize each car that enters the shop is a stretch, but we need to figure out how to push forward or fold up our chairs and go home," he said. "You have to hope you’ll be as safe as you can. Too many people have been lost to this disease, but even more people are going to be lost if we don’t find a way to restart the economic engine soon.
“My shop is my life and has been my life’s work,” DeMieri added. “It’s terrifying to know that everything I’ve worked for could be gone when we reopen. I may not be reopening to what I had; I have no idea what I’m reopening to. It’s hard to fight the mental anguish of thinking your whole life’s work could be gone, just like that. I’m hoping that’s not the case.”