Employers of lower-wage employees can attest that car problems are a significant cause of absenteeism, which can become chronic due to the high costs of auto repairs. The Lift Garage, a South Minneapolis auto repair shop with a three-month backlog, can attest to the depth of the market.
“It’s clear that we have identified a legitimate need in the community,” says Cathy Heying, the Lift’s founder and operations director.
The Lift believes it is the only nonprofit that provides car repairs for low-income Minnesotans, priced at a third of the cost of a traditional repair shop. To do so, it charges a flat rate of $15 per hour of labor, plus parts at cost.
“Transportation expenses routinely exceed 30 percent of the average low-income single parent’s household expenses,” says Craig Helmstetter, senior research manager at Wilder Research. Transportation is the No. 1 employment barrier for American Indians and No. 2 barrier for African-Americans in the east metro, according to a recent survey from the St. Paul Foundation.
The Lift provides repairs that focus on safety and drivability, including tire service. The shop services most makes except for German cars and Cadillacs, due to cost and complexity. In addition, it offers free pre-purchase inspections and monthly car care classes. “They aren’t as popular as I wish, but they teach the basics: how to check oil levels, change an air filter and what different warning lights mean,” says Heying.
To cover the shop’s overhead, Heying relies on donations, grants and other community support—Luther and Morrie’s Automotive are among her benefactors. Heying has no “shop” per se, but instead leases four bays at Dan’s Nicollet Car Wash in South Minneapolis. She has quadrupled her staff and repair capacity since opening.
To date, the Lift has completed more than 1,400 repairs for more than 600 customers. In March, Standard Heating and Air Conditioning donated a van, which the shop uses to send a technician out to cars. The tech runs a series of tests and inspections to evaluate if the repairs are worth the cost; if not, Lift will remove them from the list, saving the customer the hassle of waiting.
“The need for this type of service is huge,” says Heying, “and it’s not only drastically impacting people’s lives, but employers’ lives, too.”