Car Repair During COVID-19: How Have Mechanics Been Affected?

Auto garage services, like most businesses, have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Auto garages have had to develop and adapt as a result of both the pandemic and the changes to business practices that the pandemic has brought. However, auto garage services will always be needed as long as drivers use and abuse their vehicles. Consequently, even with adaptations, auto garage services are largely available despite the health and economic problems that have affected the U.S.

Here are ten ways COVID-19 has affected auto garage services:

Essential Services

During the business shutdowns, repair garages were considered essential services in most states and were allowed to remain open. However, like most businesses, there were reasons that business waned even though they continued to provider auto garage services:

  • Stay-at-home orders: Many customers who needed repair services or maintenance visits were not able to take their vehicles to auto garages because travel was restricted in many major cities and states.
  • Drop in traffic: Travel dropped over 40% throughout the U.S. during March and April. This drop off in traffic was so large that many car insurance companies offered rebates to their customers. Another result of the drop in traffic was that repair and maintenance services were not needed even in cities that were not subject to stay-at-home orders.
  • Work from home: Many potential customers were working from home rather than commuting. This not only reduced the wear on their cars, but it also reduced the number of auto accidents since the majority of accidents occur during rush hour traffic. This drop in the number of auto accidents reduced the demand for repair work for many auto garages.

Unfortunately, this means that many garages had to go out of business even though they were not forced to shut down during the worst of the pandemic.

Supply Chain Issues

Auto garage services have a wide-ranging and complex supply chain. The auto garages depend on parts suppliers that, in turn, depend on manufacturers throughout the U.S. and around the world. They also depend on the transportation services that carry those parts from the manufacturing plants to the ports, where they can be shipped to the parts suppliers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the manufacturers, shippers, and ports shut down. This meant that auto garages and their parts suppliers had to find new sources for their parts whether it was brake pads for brake repair jobs or fluids for a tune-up.

With a substitute supply chain in place, and with the reopening of factories, shipping and trucking companies, and ports, auto garage services are not as disrupted as they were during the shutdowns. However, like all businesses, a slow economy has continued to drag on auto repair services.

Economic Slowdown

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy entered a recession. This recession was deep and triggered deep levels of unemployment.

One result of this economic slowdown was that many potential customers for auto repair services have no disposable income. Many people are having enough trouble paying for necessities like housing and food that they are not in the market for the services offered by auto garages.

However, the U.S. government was able to intervene to soften the blow of the pandemic and business shutdowns. By issuing stimulus checks, supplementing unemployment benefits, and subsidizing businesses to prevent layoffs, the U.S. government injected money into the economy which was able to tide many people over during the pandemic.

As a result, many people who needed auto garage services were able to pay for them.

Government Loans and Programs

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) administered two programs that were intended to support the economy from the employer side. This injection of liquidity allowed many businesses, including auto garage services, to weather the pandemic without going bankrupt or laying off mechanics. The U.S. has about 640,000 mechanics and widespread layoffs could have caused massive disruption to the auto repair industry.

The two programs offered by the SBA included:

  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP): The PPP was an SBA loan program that was administered by banks. Banks accepted and processed loans to earn a fee from the government and the loans were funded by the SBA. The advantage of auto garages of taking out a PPP loan is that the loan was forgivable as long as the funds were used for payroll and other approved expenses like rent and utilities. PPP loans were enough to cover payroll expenses for two and a half months. The goal of the PPP program was to give employers a way to keep employees on the payroll rather than laying them off.
  • Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL): EIDL is a loan program for small businesses. The loan is administered like a normal, low-interest SBA disaster loan and must be repaid. However, during the pandemic, an additional benefit was provided to borrowers who applied for an EIDL. During the pandemic, advances were provided so that immediate help was available to applicants. These advanced depended on the amount of loan that was requested, but these advances were not required to be repaid. In essence, the EIDL advance was free money to small businesses.

The result of these government programs was that many businesses relating to the auto repair industry, from oil changes to carburetor installation, we’re able to stay in business without laying off technicians.

Drop in New Car Sales

Another consequence of the pandemic was a severe drop in new car sales. Some car dealerships reported that new car sales dropped by as much as 35% during the second quarter of 2020.

This had both positive and negative effects on businesses that provide auto garage services.

On the positive side, auto repair garages picked up business repairing cars because car owners did not have the money to replace them with a new car. This allowed repair garages to benefit even while car dealerships suffered.

On the negative side, auto garage services also lost out on the regular maintenance services that new cars require. For authorized service centers affiliated with the car manufacturers, this meant losing out on service calls that they could normally expect from new car owners.

Used Car Sales

Research on car title history and anecdotal evidence suggests that while new car sales have dropped, used car sales have risen. Again, this makes sense because if a car completely dies, buying a used car might be cheaper and easier than fixing the broken car.

However, this has provided auto garage services with an opportunity to pick up business. Used cars usually require more service than new cars. Moreover, garages often offer inspection services for buyers of used cars to help them to identify the potential problems with the use of cars they are considering.

Finally, many people who sell used cars need to fix them before selling them. As a result, auto garages were able to pick up work from both used car lots and private sellers fixing up used cars so they can be sold.

Delivery Services

Another opportunity for auto repair businesses was the sudden boom in delivery services. Whether it was food delivery or package delivery, people who were confined to home or unable to shop in person due to health concerns increased their online ordering. This necessarily led to an increase in demand for delivery services.

This increase in demand for delivery increased the need to service those delivery vehicles. Fortunately, with business customers like delivery services, auto repair businesses not only had a lot of work but they also had work that paid well.

Equally importantly, they had customers that often recognized the importance of maintenance including oil changes, tire changes, and checks of major systems. The benefits of regular maintenance include:

  • Expense: Maintenance is often less expensive than repair because a break down can affect systems in addition to the system that needs to be maintained. For example, changing engine oil as recommended can prevent engine damage.
  • Convenience: Scheduling maintenance allows you to know your vehicle will not be available so you can plan around it. Breakdowns take your vehicle out of service unexpectedly.
  • Value: Regular maintenance extends the life of a vehicle and improves its reliability. A regularly maintained vehicle is always ready when it is needed.
  • Efficiency: A vehicle that is regularly maintained runs better and will use less fuel. This makes the vehicle cheaper to operate.

The work that garages were able to pick up maintaining and repairing delivery vehicles allowed many of these garages to stay in business and avoid laying off employees while they worked through the pandemic.

Pick Up and Drop Off Service

When the shutdown orders ended and businesses reopened, auto garage services had to adapt. One service that some garages offered that they did not previously offer was pick up and drop off.

This minimized the direct contact between service technicians and customers. A typical pickup and drop off service includes arranging the services over the phone or online and choosing a time for the pickup. At the time of the pickup, the car owner will typically be asked to leave the keys in the car. The driver picks up the vehicle and delivers it to the auto garage where the technicians can work on it.

At the end of the day, the driver can return the vehicle to the car owner with the repairs completed. Payment is usually rendered using a credit or debit card via the Internet or phone. By providing pick up and drop off service, the auto garage can continue rendering services while reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

House Calls

Another way that auto garages were able to offer their services while addressing concerns about disease transmission was to offer house calls. The most visible services to offer house calls were windshield repair and automobile window tinting services. These services require very few tools and can be completed fairly quickly.

Again, the typical process for offering house calls would be for the customer to arrange the services by phone or the Internet. The customer leaves the car unlocked or leaves the door key on the car.

When the technician arrives for the house call, the technician calls the customer to confirm which car requires service and begins working on it. When the services are completed, the customer can arrange payment using a credit card over the Internet or phone.

The benefit of house calls compared to pick up and drop off is that house calls include:

  • House calls can save gasoline and time compared to driving the customer’s car to the repair garage and back to the customer.
  • By not driving the customer’s car, the garage has less risk of causing an accident and being sued by an auto accident lawyer.
  • Servicing the car at the customer’s house can be highly efficient for simple jobs because the technician can take care of several jobs on one trip.

Reducing Disease Transmission

Auto repair garages have the same concerns as other businesses when it comes to COVID-19. Minimizing the risk of disease transmission is a multi-prong attack. Although repair services are provided in large bays, enclose spaces increase the risk of transmission. This risk is increased in air-conditioned spaces, like an enclosed garage during the summer. Unlike outdoor jobs like blacktop paving, indoor jobs like auto repair can be a good environment for airborne diseases like viruses.

Moreover, a typical auto repair garage includes a waiting room where customers can sit while their automobile is repaired. This provided both surfaces and enclosed space where the virus could be transmitted.

So, recognizing that there were several risks involved, auto garages adopted several safety procedures:

  • Waiting rooms: By closing waiting rooms, repair garages were able to reduce the risk of customers passing COVID-19 to one another.
  • Social distancing: Like many businesses, social distancing has been encouraged by many auto garages. This includes both distancing customers from workers and distancing workers from each other. By providing that extra space, the risk of transmission of this airborne virus is substantially reduced.
  • Masks: Masks are difficult for auto technicians to use while working. Masks can be hot and will pick up smells and fumes from the garage. However, by encouraging workers to wear masks, the risk of transmitting the virus among employees can be reduced. As a result, many garages have moved toward a mask requirement for their employees.
  • Cleaning: A major concern from customers is that technicians could pass the virus to them by touching the interior of their car. As a result, many auto garages have instituted cleaning procedures to sanitize the interior of cars they work on to make sure that any viruses have been killed.

Auto garage services were hit hard in the early stages of the pandemic and business shutdowns. As the economy slowed and people started working from home, the demand for auto repairs dropped. Moreover, many people were confined to the home and could not take their cars to the garage for service. Worse yet, as unemployment rose, fewer people had disposable income to pay for auto repair services.

However, as the economy has recovered and government programs have been offered, auto repair garages have been able to weather the pandemic. Dealing with the pandemic over the long term has required to garages to adapt their practices so they can provide services in a way that reduces coronavirus risk for both customers and employees.

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