Need auto body work in Houma or Thibodaux? Be prepared to wait for months. Here's why.

·5 min read

When Jamie Heyl tried to schedule an appointment to get her vehicle repaired, she was told to take a number.

“When I called in October to see about getting in with someone, the first place I called had a 600-car waiting list and said it would be next year,” the Houma resident said. “We are ready to purchase a new car anyway, so it wasn't worth it for us to wait that long to have the car fixed. We were very lucky that it was drivable. I'm not sure what we could have done otherwise.”

Several members in Da Buzz Facebook group said Heyl is not alone.

Larose resident Celeste Eymard Neigel also learned that getting a vehicle repaired in Terrebonne or Lafourche wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

“My boys were rear-ended in January,” she said. “I contacted local repair shops and was told that it would be about a year’s wait. I called Gerber Collision and Glass in NOLA, and I had a six-week wait.”

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What Neigel and Heyl experienced is happening at every car-repair shop in the country due to labor shortages and supply issues, experts said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there will be a 4% decline in employment in the auto technician industry through 2029. Retiring baby boomers alone will open over 46,000 auto mechanic jobs through 2026, the agency said.

Rob Miles, who owns Rob’s Rods and Auto Repair in Houma, looks under the hood of a car Wednesday.
Rob Miles, who owns Rob’s Rods and Auto Repair in Houma, looks under the hood of a car Wednesday.

According to the 2021 FenderBender Industry Survey, more than two-thirds of collision repair shop owners participating in the survey were 50 years or older.

Roland Delatte, who owns Roland’s Collision Center in Thibodaux, said a labor shortage is only part of the reason car repairs are backed up locally.

Hurricane Ida, which made landfall Aug. 29 in Terrebonne and Lafourche, caused a lot of damage to vehicles as well as property, he said.

“People have to go as far as Texas to get their car fixed right now,” Delatte said. “Lafayette is booked, New Orleans is booked and Mississippi is booked. It’s due to that storm and so many cars got damaged in it. Insurance companies have been doing a lot of virtual estimates to get the process moving, but when we get the cars in they have a lot more damage than what they wrote the first time. You might think you’ve got a week’s worth of work, but it goes up to three. The labor is also terrible. I haven’t had a good application in 20 years. We just can’t do more than what we’re already doing.”

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Michael Labat, owner of Kustom's Autobody & Accessories in Thibodaux, said another issue that’s causing the body shop backlog is the lack of parts due to supply chain problems.

“I used to get parts overnight, sometimes even on the same day,” he said. “Now I’ll have a vehicle that needs five parts and I receive four but that last part takes three or four weeks to come in. This has been something else."

Rob Miles, who owns Rob’s Rods and Auto Repair in Houma, said labor shortages, supply chain issues and Hurricane Ida have formed a perfect storm that has impacted local body shops.

“I have a small auto repair shop in Houma and parts we used to get overnight now take three to four days,” he said. “I ordered a crate motor at the end of February. It normally arrives in two to three weeks, but I still haven't received it. I am booked solid till the middle of May. It started with the lockdown but seems to have doubled after all the natural disasters this year. I lost one full-time and one part-time employee because of Ida. They lost their homes and moved away. I haven't found anyone to replace them yet.”

Labat the backlog has changed the way he schedules his customers.

“I quite scheduling people and started making a list,” Labat said. “I’m thinking that list will take me out to January or February of next year. I usually keep about six weeks of work ahead of me, but because of the storm, I’m really backed up. It’s an unusual time for sure.”

Jason Altham, an automotive instructor at Fletcher Technical Community College in Schriever, said there are several factors behind the mechanic shortage.

“What I see that is causing a shortage of qualified individuals in the auto repair industry is the way technicians are being paid,” he said. “Technicians work on what is known as ‘flat rate,’ which means that for every job that comes in, there is a set labor time for the job. For example, if a car comes in needing an alternator replacement, and the labor time guide says it pays one hour of labor to replace it, then that is what the technician makes, regardless it if it takes five minutes or two days. While a flat rate is good if the work is there, if nothing is coming in the front door, the technicians are not making any money, or very little.”

Altham said the automotive industry will need to change with the times.

“They are falling behind,” he said. “If you want good, qualified people, you have to pay them well. Highly complex automotive systems require extensive training, and if you want to attract the people that understand these systems and can fix them the first time, you need to pay them appropriately.”

This article originally appeared on The Courier: Need auto body work? Here's why you'll probably have to wait months.