Elevator Safety Rules Subject of Fight in W. Va. Senate Committee

March 6, 2008

Elevator safety and licensing rules recommended by a recent legislative audit and passed by the West Virginia House disguise a bid by the industry’s union to preserve and enhance its share of the market, the bill’s leading opponent contends.

Oracle Elevator Co. has led the fight against the bill, now before a Senate committee. Among other provisions, the measure would set licensing and competency requirements for an array of elevator-related workers.

Oracle’s president said the company’s stance has nothing to do with Kenneth Harmon, who was hired as Oracle’s West Virginia manager after the state sued him and shunned him for future contracts amid allegations he fudged safety records and billings in 2003.

“He is not involved at all in this bill in any way, shape or form,” President William Miller said.

Lawmakers were advised to adopt the safety provisions by a September audit that cited concerns raised by the state Division of Labor.

While the division found no elevator-related deaths or injuries in West Virginia, “there have been some instances of unskilled laborers working on elevators throughout the state,” the audit said. “Currently, there are no minimum requirements to work as an elevator worker and no laws to prevent unskilled or incompetent individuals from working on elevators in West Virginia.”

The audit noted further that neighboring Virginia and Maryland are among the 25 states that have adopted licensing standards for elevator workers.

Miller cites support of the bill from the International Union of Elevator Constructors. He estimated that the labor group represents 85 percent of the industry’s workers.

“The sole goal is to limit competition in the industry to union workers,” said Miller, whose company maintains 7,500 elevators in eight states.

But supporters also include such nonunion contractors as Bob Gilchrist of Parkersburg. He plans to testify in favor of the bill at Wednesday’s scheduled meeting of the Senate Committee on Government Organization.

“Twenty-something states have enacted this kind of legislation,” Gilchrist said Tuesday. “This isn’t a union ploy.”

Harmon, who did not respond to messages requesting comment Tuesday, became Oracle’s in-state manager and sales contact after running a separate business, Harmon Elevator Co.

Harmon was paid more than $1.6 million over seven years to maintain elevators at the Capitol Complex, the Department of Health and Human Resources and at other agencies, hospitals and colleges across the state.

State officials alleged in 2003 that Harmon had bypassed safety measures for those elevators, and billed for work he never performed. An array of state and county agencies canceled their contracts with his company as a result.

The state Department of Administration then sued Harmon and his company in 2004 for breach of contract and unjust enrichment, among other allegations. Harmon countersued, alleging state officials had wrongly targeted him.

The lawsuit was dismissed in October 2006 after the judge sent the case to a mediator. Miller said the dismissal vindicated Harmon.

“The state dropped their lawsuits with no penalties, payments or anything,” Miller said. “The state realized there was nothing there.”

The Department of Administration provided court papers which suggest that Harmon’s lack of assets helped prompt the dismissal. The state agreed instead to pursue claims against Harmon’s insurer in the final order, which also barred him from bidding on state projects for 18 months.

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