December 09, 2019

NJ Master Hearth Specialist Bill - From small mistakes we can achieve great things. But it does take time.

Back in 2007, Governor Corzine signed into law the “HVACR Licensing Law.” When it was proposed, most hearth professionals didn’t see anything in the bill that would impact the hearth industry and those that did, were in the minority.  After some MAHPBA board-level discussion, it was determined that there was no need to unite in opposition.   So, we moved on with our day to day life and hoped for the best. As a result, our one chance to have our voice heard and represented in the final bill, passed us by.

Unfortunately, MAHPBA didn’t realize at that time that the text of a bill would have significant consequences for member business operations. The HVACR Licensing Law was eventually interpreted by the regulatory agencies to include most if not all hearth professional work. It started when the regulatory agencies claimed that the installation of gas lines was the exclusive right of the HVACR Contractor and Licensed Plumber.  Those rights were expanded further when the HVACR Board than concluded, that a fireplace is a space heater and as such, falls under the jurisdiction of a NJ licensed HVACR Contractor and the HVACR Board. The HVACR Board also concluded that any flue pipe that removes byproducts of combustion falls under the jurisdiction of the HVACR Board and Contractor. While our installers were grandfathered in for a few years, eventually time caught up to us and the grandfathering period ended. Suddenly our livelihoods were being threatened as the HVACR Licensing Law went into effect in 2016.

That year, hearth specialists began to have their permitting requests to install gas lines denied as they weren’t licensed HVACR professionals. The full reality of the impact of this law was now in effect.

The full explanation of how we got here involves the concept of Scope of Practice Principle and gets a little complicated. Basically, the HVACR Licensing Law states what a NJ Licensed HVACR Contractors Scope of Practice is.  Regulatory agencies are then empowered to enforce that scope of practice as being exclusive to the HVACR Contractor because the law also declares that “no one shall do the work of a HVACR Contractor except for a NJ Licensed HVACR Contractor.”  Example – The HVACR Law states that an HVACR Contractor installs gas lines (among other things) but doesn’t note that that installation is exclusively the domain of the HVACR Contractor. However, because the HVACR Law defined the Scope of Practice of the HVACR Contractor as including this skill,  it falls into the domain of the HVACR Contractor because the Law also states,  that no one is permitted to do the work of an HVACR Contractor except for a NJ Licensed HVACR Contractor.  So, an HVACR Contractors Scope of Practice not only includes the gas line installation, it also includes many other tasks that hearth professionals do routinely. Red flag alert! We fought this method of interpretation but failed. By legal definition, an essential part of the hearth professional roles has now been defined as within the scope of practice of HVACR Contractors. And they have to be licensed to practice in New Jersey.

MAHPBA, its government affairs committee, and its members finally recognized the threat and united to take action. We had made some initial efforts in 2014 to make changes to the interpretation of the bill but were unsuccessful. It was now time to get our own bill passed.

Consider the challenges we faced. We are hearth guys. We’re good at helping consumers install the fireplace of their dreams, but we certainly don’t know the rules of political engagement in Trenton, NJ. The first step was to assemble our resources. We reached out to HPBA and the Government Affairs Committee for professional advice and financial assistance. With that, we hired a legal team and a lobbyist and started down the very long road of the legislative process. The Affiliate was finally united and had the resources to take on this battle.

We had to get the governor on board. We had learned that due to some technical mistakes, the enforcement by the DCA was premature as the supporting regulations had not yet been signed into law. The governor needed to instruct the relevant agencies not to enforce these regulations until we’ve had the chance to act. Governor Christie was on board and gave those instructions. But then another November rolled by and New Jersey had an election. Not only did we have a new governor, but he was from the other political party, so we had to start again. Thanks to our efforts, Governor Murphy was agreeable. We now had time to act.

It took several more years, but eventually we celebrated victory when Governor Murphy signed the Master Hearth Specialist (MHS) Bill into law in August of 2019. This bill creates a Scope of Practice and a License for Master Hearth Specialists. It protects our ability to install and service gas lines, hearth appliances, flue vents, and every other part of our job. The requirements to get the MHS is reasonable and achievable for hearth professionals. It gives our industry the autonomy to do their work.

There is a lesson here for every hearth professional in North America. Pay attention to what the legislators are doing in your own state. We know that the unions that pushed through the original law in 2007 are trying to do the same in other states. Be united as an Affiliate and come together to push back. You have many resources available to you – not the least of which is our experience in New Jersey to show what can be done. We started late and missed early opportunities – something that you can avoid because of our adventures.

We are always happy to share more of our story about how we united to protect ourselves. Reach out to MAHPBA for more information.

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