After months of getting nowhere with complaints to GM about problems with his car, gay Arkansan Todd Elkins questions why HRC’s Corporate Equality Index doesn’t also address customer service issues in its rankings
Todd Elkins’1999 Cadillac Deville was overheating.
In April and May, the Arkansas real estate agent had already replaced the cooling fan relay, radiator hose and thermostat. The vehicle’s cooling system had also been flushed, “outside of warranty,” he said.
But after the fixes, the car was still overheating. In May, after paying for the repairs, a mechanic told him the real problem: a cracked engine block. He referred Elkins to General Motors Service Bulletin #99086, issued in March 2002.
Among the impacted models listed in the bulletin were one Oldsmobile model and three Cadillac models, including the 1999 Deville.
A diagnosis at Cadillac of Bentonville confirmed the flaw. An authorized Cadillac dealer, they paid for the diagnostic fee but could not replace the engine under his warranty. They said they were not the guarantor of the warranty associated with the vehicle.
They told Elkins the repair would cost $5000, with the chance that even then it might not pass an engine block test guaranteeing its efficiency.
Elkins was not up to taking the costly risk. He was also confused about why he needed to pay for it. The vehicle he purchased in 2004 came with an extended warranty covering him up to 60,000 miles. Whenever he needed a repair, the warranty covered it.
According to the Workbench vehicle history provided by Elkins, as of July 11, 2002, five months after the bulletin was issued, his vehicle had 35,291 miles on it. The vehicle had already visited many mechanics by then.
Between 2000 and 2008, it was serviced 15 times. The car’s battery alone was replaced twice between 2001-02; the generator was replaced in 2008. Other replacements included a car door, air conditioner and transmission plate.
But over the course of the servicing and replacing, various mechanics missed looking at its Northstar engine.
Soon thereafter, Elkins filed a complaint with Cadillac Customer Care, which is still working on the case. Having gained no traction there, he filed a complaint with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, which has since been in communication with Cadillac of Bentonville and GM.
But Elkins said his requests have gone nowhere.
As a gay consumer, he doesn’t feel his experience with GM reflects the company’s 100 percent rating with the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which measures large corporations’ commitment to the LGBT community. Why doesn’t the Index, seen as the benchmark of corporate LGBT policies, deduct points or include consumer criticism in cases like his, Elkins wants to know.
“What concerns me the most is with … a high corporate index score, General Motors has recalled more vehicles than they have sold over the past five years [and is] producing a product with more cover ups,” he wrote in a complaint submitted to the Arkansas Attorney General. “Is it time for HRC to also review customer resolutions and customer satisfaction to GLBT consumers and adjust the score accordingly?”
The Northstar engine has since ceased production, which only complicates Elkins’ case. But it has still stranded consumers like Elkins with the hefty cost of replacing it. As he navigates the complicated web of vague corporate and legal policies, he’s reached a dead end. He just wanted his engine replaced.
The 1999 Deville was recalled only once — for side air bags that might not deploy. Three people died due to that flaw.
General Motors has only issued 57 service bulletins since that may directly affect the 1999 Cadillac Deville, according to the National Highway Safety Administration’s records, and 57 is a conservative estimate given that not all bulletins are posted online.
But of those 57, 16 have involved the engine.
“The Northstar was a terrible engine, just like a lot of GM’s engines,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
But the engine being terrible does not mean GM was legally obliged to recall the vehicle.
After he purchased the vehicle, Elkins contends he never received a letter notifying him of the bulletin. That’s because a service bulletin, also known as a safety bulletin, is not for consumers, said David Morton, research director at Consumerautomativeresearch.com.
“They are sent by the manufacturer to notify dealers telling the dealers how to deal with a specific issue,” such as a cracked engine block, which could be why Elkins never received a letter, Morton said. There are no statutory limits to bulletins because the flaw is not sweeping.
Recalls, however, are strictly tied to safety issues that could potentially harm or threaten the life of anyone in the vehicle. If a car is recalled, the manufacturer is authorized to replace it free of charge.
But that does not mean the government turns a blind eye. “The federal government takes complaints and monitors bulletins. If they see a pattern then they will take issue with it, if it is safety-related,” Morton explained.
Whether or not an overheating engine warrants a recall or a service bulletin involves numerous issues, Morton said. An over-heating engine in cold weather could have a much different impact on a vehicle than one in warm weather, for instance. Issues could even differ among consumers. The decision to recall depends upon on whether or not the flaws are life threatening.
“If an engine is overheating but you can get off the road, then it is not a safety issue,” Morton said. “But if your engine is overheating and it suddenly stops, you have a safety issue.”
To the government and manufacturer, the difference between a recall and service bulletin may be the difference between safety versus inconvenience. Even when safety may not be a concern, cost is, however.
Ditlow describes the increasing use of safety bulletins as a loophole that benefits big manufacturers like GM. He calls it a “secret warranty,” meaning the less you know, the less a corporation like GM has to lose.
But it is also an issue of federal transparency. Five states have taken action to close that loophole, requiring notification be sent to owners. (Arkansas and Texas are not among them.)
The Center for Auto Safety has been crucial to advocating for robust vehicle safety standards. In the past decade, Ditlow said, the NHTSA, the federal agency overseeing automobile and consumer safety automobiles, has eased restrictions on manufacturers, giving them more leeway to conduct service campaigns.
Unfortunately Elkins’ case isn’t rare. His confusion isn’t either.
“When a company ends a product [like the Northstar engine], it leaves the loyal customer stranded,” Ditlow said.
Even if a consumer complains, they often go nowhere. Complaints are directed to the Federal Trade Commission, which among other duties has jurisdiction over automobile companies. “But they often ignore a consumer complaint against the manufacturer,” Morton said.
Seeking guidance — and hopefully an advocate as a gay consumer — Elkins turned to Joe LaMuraglia, GM’s LGBT liaison, east coast broadcast manager and social media enthusiast. He put him in touch with Cadillac’s alternative resolution department.
It’s positions like the liaison that affirm GM’s commitment to the LGBT community, and garners plenty of points on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.
Before he joined the corporation in 2010, LaMuraglia ran the website Gay Wheels, a gay perspective automobiles and the industry. GM always came first on his list for manufacturers with pro-LGBT practices, he said.
It’s what attracted LaMuraglia to the job. He said he’s taken the role further, pushing the boundaries while committing himself to the brand.
“I just don’t want to check a box,” he said. “We want to get LGBT people engaged and push the envelope. We also want them to experience our products.”
Measuring the Index’s limits
The Corporate Equality Index ranks the country’s largest corporations on a 1-to-100 scale, based on a variety of data provided by the corporation. A criterion to be considered, for one, is if corporations have more than 500 U.S.-based employees.
It would be hard to measure something smaller, said Deena Fidas, who oversees the Index as director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program.
To achieve the coveted 100 percent benchmark, corporations must meet the maximum standards in five key areas: equal employment opportunities, employment benefits, organizational LGBT competency, public engagement and responsible citizenship.
The Index is not meant to be a holistic account of all practices, Fidas said. While the criteria for earning a high score are broad, “the [Index’s] narrow scope is its strength.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the annual Index’s data points are set in stone. Fidas cited the efforts by an advisor to the program, Diego Sanchez, who worked on standards relating to transition-related care for transgender employees. Feedback is welcome from the public and other organizations, though not all issues fall within the Index’s scope, she said.
Fidas said the Index is a gentle nudge with a big impact. It could steer LGBT job-seekers and allies in making employment decisions. More importantly, it can also compel corporations to become more LGBT-friendly.
While participation is voluntary, the results for non-participatory corporations could work against them.
With so many corporations participating, the few who do not are still examined, as is the case with Irving-based ExxonMobil, which has consistently scored zero on the Index.
But the Index’s free market approach to advocacy does not sit well with some.
Jerame Davis is the interim director of Pride at Work, an LGBT advocacy organization allied with labor unions based in Washington, D.C. He sees room for accommodation on broader issues with the Corporate Equality Index. But Davis does not believe the corporate benchmark should be sacked.
“Even though the [Index] doesn’t look at labor issues, it is only a labor contract in [many] states that has any legal force to protect LGBT workers from discrimination,” he said.
Right to work states, like Texas, limit unions’ power to compel employees to join. Making union membership voluntary leaves the responsibility of LGBT advocacy to municipalities — and to corporations.
“In 29 states it’s legal to fire someone for being LGBT and in 32 states it’s legal to fire someone just for being transgender,” Davis noted.
Just as pressing are the socio-economic issues the Index does not address.
“T-Mobile has a 100 percent rating [on HRC’s Index], but they are also aggressive union busters,” Davis said. “The pay disparity between the executives and laborers is also huge.”
That’s an issue for Chris Rabb, the social impact fellow at Temple University Fox School of Business’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute. He was not familiar with the Index, but considers it to be similar to others.
Confusing outputs with outcomes, indexes forget the explicit role of social justice, Rabb suggested. “Outputs are proxies, the ‘warm and fuzzy’ standards” that do not scratch the surface of the pressing issues.
“Outcomes are about social inclusion and participatory democracy,” he added.
Outcomes give everyone a voice, he said: “While companies may internally respect employees with pro-LGBT and racial employment policies, what if they’re still destroying the earth? Do they get points deducted for that?”
He suggests an alternative to evaluating a corporation’s social responsibility and commitment to social justice. Instead of narrow criteria evaluated by one organization, a collaborative effort by major civil and human rights organizations using broad criteria could be used in evaluating corporations.
Outreach vs. advocate
The two largest complaints received by Arkansas’ consumer protection division involve vehicles and debt collection, said Arkansas’ Assistant Attorney General and Division Chief Sarah Tucker. “They’ll trade roles for top complaints every year,” she said.
Elkins case was more complicated, however.
When a consumer files a complaint with the Arkansas consumer protection division, Tucker said they are often unsure of their desired resolution. Like Elkins, they’re upset about a perceived raw deal.
While she is neither an attorney in private practice nor a consumer advocate, Tucker’s office initiates “informal complaint mediation,” where the consumer and corporation hopeful reach resolution.
The process usually takes a month and mostly reaches a comfortable outcome.
But Elkins’ complaint involves two businesses — the dealer and GM — and the large corporation might not respond to inquiries by Tucker’s office.
“If they are handling the issue directly with the consumer, they possibly see their process as adequate,” she said.
On June 25, Cadillac of Bentonville, a service provider, replied that while they are authorized to repair the car, they do not dictate the parameters for repairs per the service bulletin. Elkins’ request to have the warranty cover the engine repairs was ultimately denied.
“The scope of the repairs necessary to fix Mr. Elkins’ car do not fall within the guidelines that GM sets forth for warranty repair,” wrote Tim Martino, the dealer’s fixed operations officer. He should contact General Motors directly.
Elkins took everyone to task for not being attentive to his issue.
“I have worked with Cadillac’s Customer Care. I have tweeted Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors. I have called the executive offices of General Motors and also filed a consumer reports complaint,” he said. And yet, five months later, he still has not heard anything.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.