A new model for hiring movers in N.C. falls in licensing 'gray area'
There's Airbnb to find a place to crash on vacation, and Uber to catch a quick ride. Now a new company is taking a page from these online startups and developing a different model for booking a local mover online.
Bellhops, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company that's entering the Charlotte market and more than 130 other U.S. cities, focuses on connecting people making small- to mid-sized, short-distance moves with local, college-age laborers who contract to pick up boxes on the side — at an hourly rate less than traditional moving companies.
But before booking your move with the new startup, North Carolina regulators and movers caution the informal nature of the transaction comes with some risks and some questions.
“The first thing I’d worry about is liability,” says Don Reid, owner of highly rated Easy Movers of Pineville, just south of Charlotte. “What happens if one of these guys gets hurt moving your piano?”
Company co-founder Stephen Vlahos says the non-traditional moving business, which facilitates local moves by allowing independent contractors to pick up jobs that customers submit online — similar to Uber drivers picking up rides on their schedule — offers liability coverage and property insurance for customers. But he admits, "It's a bit of a gray area in how the regulations apply to what we do."
Do moving regulations apply?
The Bellhops website says the business is "licensed and bonded," but it doesn't expound upon the type of licensing it holds. Vlahos told Angie's List they hold a business license, but he wasn't sure of the specific licensing status in particular cities where the business operates.
In North Carolina, traditional movers are regulated for intrastate moves by the N.C. Utilities Commission, which mandates levels of insurance and puts caps on how much a moving company can charge by weight. Interstate moves, such as from North to South Carolina, are regulated by the federal government.
Those state and federal regulations require movers to carry worker’s compensation, which covers injuries on the job, as well as cargo insurance that covers the goods being moved. In North Carolina, moving companies are required to have at least $10,000 in cargo insurance, which serves as protection for both the moving company and the customer.
Bellhops may avoid some of the moving regulations because of its non-traditional business model that contracts only labor. It charges customers $40 per hour per mover, and pays $15 an hour to the students performing the move. However, the company website states it has relationships with truck companies, including U-Haul and Penske, and offers local-move customers the option to book, deliver and return the rented truck as part of its service.
That's why state regulators don't find the situation so ambiguous. “Providing trucks and transporting household goods over public highways for compensation within North Carolina is regulated by the (Utilities) Commission and requires a certificate of exemption in order to perform that kind of service," says Cynthia Smith of the transportation rates division of the Utilities Commission. "This company is not registered with the Secretary of State office and does not have a certificate to transport household goods within N.C.”
According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, as of Aug. 27, the company, under the name "Campus Bellhops," has a pending household goods freight forwarder application filed June 19, but it did not have any current federal operating authority.
A mover's perspective
“I know not everyone likes regulation,” Reid says, “but I think in North Carolina now, we’ve got it about right. It does protect customers.”
Customers also should do some regulating of their own, Reid says, by vetting potential moving services on review sites like Angie’s List. “People need to know who the bad actors are,” he says.
Reid says he’s not surprised to see technology bring Uber and Airbnb concepts to the moving industry. But while that might result in lower overhead and cheaper moves for customers, it can leave those customers exposed. “I can see why it would be appealing,” he says. “But the risks are significant.”