Friday, December 1, 2017

Don’t overlook public comment periods

Last week’s column about the Cuomo Administration’s proposed regulations for employee scheduling closed out by encouraging the reader to reach out to the Department of Labor while the public comment period is underway. 

Most folks would look at that suggestion dismissively, fully believing that their opinion means nothing. 

Don’t ever think that way.

Public comment works. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Back in 2011, this column looked at a proposal by the Obama Administration which would have excluded all minors (except the children of the farm’s owners) from most farm work and all animal husbandry, which would have killed the future of agriculture in this country and destroyed the 4-H and FFA. Thanks to the wonders of in the internet, the column went viral almost overnight and farmers, high school students, ag colleges, talk radio hosts, and politicians heartily voiced their opinions in the closing days of the public comment period. After that column made its rounds, public input increased tenfold to the US Department of Labor in a matter of just a few days. We beat back the regulations and it was a huge win for farming….all because people made their voices heard. 

It’s wonderful that our government gives us the chance to do that -- most don’t. Luckily we had founding fathers like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who were adamant about citizen-driven discussions, something that caught on in New England town halls and similar movements that followed and continue to this day.   

The process in a nutshell: When an executive branch, be it at the state or federal level, is looking at creating policy or has proposed a change in policy it opens up the public comment period during which a special committee or the agency charged with enforcement of the new policies accepts either oral opinions (at special meetings) or written comment (via email, websites, or postal mail) regarding the proposals. After the period closes, that group goes back to the drawing board and either alters or, as was the case with the farm rules, scraps it entirely.

When delivering your comment there are five basic rules you should follow.

Be educated. Take the time to download the new rules and read through them. Also, read up on why they were created. Don’t take the word of radio/TV talking heads, your favorite elected official or columnists like me. Sure, we can lead you to an awareness or an understanding of government action, but you need to take ownership of your knowledge of the issues.

Be educational. Most policymakers have likely not been in the line of work, science, or art that they might be looking to change. But you have. Explain how the new rules will affect any number of things -- your workplace, your family, your community, the environment and the economy. Your real world perspective, from being in the trenches, is what the writers want to hear. Only you, being in the shadow of the dominos, can give the most realistic story of what could happen.  

Be professional. Although a proposed regulation might get your goat, maintain a poker face. Anger and resentment never win over people you are trying to influence. You have to be able to sell policymakers on your ideas – so be a good salesman…be respectful and positive, never demeaning.

Be to the point. Some public comment periods can be overwhelming to governmental agencies. With the aforementioned farm rules, the US DOL received 13,000 written comments. That’s 13,000 letters and emails they have to sift through and read individually. Don’t put them to sleep. Keep it short, just a few paragraphs or nothing longer than a newspaper column. 

Be yourself. Far too often, organizations you belong to will tell you to send a letter that they’ve written to an elected official or a department. Never, ever do that. If the individuals overseeing the task see a few hundred of the same letter it ends up making said letter meaningless, even when received in volume. It’s like activist spam. They want fresh ideas. Fresh voices. Fresh perspectives. They want you.  

It sounds like it could be a daunting task, but it’s not. The daunting task come when you have to live with a series of laws and regulations you didn’t want in the first place. So, do everything you can to stop them from happening. We’re granted a special power as a part of this republic. Use that power.

From the 04 December 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cuomo’s employee scheduling rules: A dangerous overreaction

I’m sure you know someone who worked at a national chain retailer and was frustrated by that employer’s scheduling practices. They’d swear that some of the theories encouraged in Retail Management 101 centered on on-call or last-minute scheduling whereby some bosses don’t provide a worker’s schedule until the day before -- or even minutes before -- the shift.

It’s a problem, for sure. But it has always been one addressed by the workers. If they didn’t like it, they quit.

Scheduling is one of the primary reasons the retail industry has the highest turnover rate in the US economy – even higher than the fast food sector’s. Hourly store employees have a turnover rate of 65% while fast food workers turnover at “only” 50%. 

Despite those numbers showing free markets working as they should (an employee is not bound to an employer and vice versa), Governor Andrew Cuomo thinks that New Yorkers have no power or chance to make such decisions.

So, in September, he commissioned the Department of Labor to hold special hearings about employee scheduling in response to those long-held practices. A couple of weeks back, the DOL issued its suggestions to which Cuomo has given his full backing.

As with any public policy coming out of Albany of late, it overreacts to an issue and produces rules and laws that will do more harm than good while affecting the economy as a whole rather than the narrow scope for which those policies were intended.

Now, all private sector employers like manufacturers, doctors, entertainment venues, restaurants and the targeted retailers will be saddled with overwhelming standards for scheduling of hourly employees (interestingly, public sector workplaces are not included in the proposed regulations).

The new rules would mandate 14 days of advance notice for work schedules. If a worker has to be called in outside of his schedule, he would receive an extra 2 hours of pay. If an employee’s shift is cancelled, and notice is not given within 72 hours of that, she is entitled to receive 4 hours of show-up pay.

The State does allow employers an escape clause for “Acts of God” (cancellations due to hazardous weather and power outages) and some circumstances beyond the employer’s control (which aren’t clearly defined) but overall they do not allow the employers “flexibility” -- the incredibly misleading buzzword that keeps appearing in the State’s press releases for the standards.

If anything, it gives employers inflexibility and makes New York’s already unwelcoming business climate even more depressing.

Consider the following:

Suppose a golf course wants to schedule their grounds crews, service personnel and cooks. Under Cuomo’s plan, they have to set it in stone 2 weeks in advance.

A golf course’s business activity is not linear – its goes up and down with the weather. A sunny day brings in the golfers; while rains keep customers away. There is no weather forecaster who can predict with any certainty 2 weeks out (some would question whether they can predict 2 days out).

But, the golf course will have to conform to this new rule, plan staffing 2 weeks out and hope to God that they know the weather 72 hours in advance or they will be paying show-up pay to every one of their employees. For the period of the rains, they will have almost no revenues, but will incur costs that they never had to before.

Those costs will appear with regularity (imagine if subsequent summers are as wet as 2017’s) and, of course, will have to be passed on to customers with higher greens fees.

This scenario doesn’t even fall under the “Act of God” allowances because the business was not forced into closure and some duffers will venture out sans carts, so it’s not as if there was no business activity -- and showers are not considered a weather emergency.

How about a larger doctor’s office such as a communal practice or an urgent care facility? What if one of the staff catches sickness from a patient and is out of commission?

That doctor will have to call-in someone who had been scheduled off – and for each day in the 72-hour notification cycle that person works, the doctor will have to pay her the 8 or 10 hour wages plus 2 hours of call-in pay. Where do those added costs go? In higher fees to patients and insurers.   

Or, what happens if I have a breakdown at Confer Plastics and a machine is not making products or money and 15 people have to be kept home?

Is that an issue beyond the employers’ control? Yes.

But in the world run by government bureaucrats it’s a “maybe” or “no”. I could get in a disagreement with a Department of Labor administrator who could say it is in my control because, in their view, I hadn’t done proper preventive maintenance, I should have had a $20,000 part sitting on a shelf, or I didn’t try to find replacement work. You see, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.  

The Department of Labor’s new proposals are an overreaction and an absolute danger to business and, ultimately, the consumers who pay for their products or services. There is a chance to change them, though. The DOL is accepting public comment through December. If you are concerned about your bottom line, drop them a line at         

From the 27 November 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Public speaking: An important career and life skill

When I was a junior high school student 30 years ago, I, like most teenagers, dreaded public speaking. The butterflies would kick up in my stomach and I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Fortunately, at least from my standpoint at the time, such activities were rare – we might have made one or two presentations a school year and you could always lean on your equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

Luckily, I had Scouting to dramatically change my world view of public speaking in the closing years of my school life. Being put into positions of leadership such as senior patrol leader and working at summer camp as a merit badge counselor made me develop public speaking skills first out of necessity then out of enjoyment.

Because of that shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me, I have a critical life and career skill available in my arsenal. The 43-year-old version of myself is not like the 13 year-old Bob Confer: I look forward to speaking to groups and talking about things I enjoy be it work, Scouting, nature or public policy (well, I don’t really enjoy public policy but you get my drift).

Public speaking is a regular part of my life. Not only do I deliver multiple weekly shift meetings at the plant to dozens of my coworkers at a time, but looking at my 2017 calendar there were another 24 occasions this year when I had to speak to groups of more than 10 people at a time. They could have been tours or speaking engagements, or participating on panels -- I didn’t even count running board or business meetings.

As I write this, I’m kind of taken aback by how often I find myself in speaking roles. Maybe I was unaware of how often it happens because I see it not as one of life’s woes, but rather as one of life’s duties as a businessman or citizen. It’s a normal part of being.

That’s a way of thinking we need to share with students today. They, their parents and guidance counselors are always looking to help them develop demonstrable – and marketable -- skill sets that can be used to further their academic and, ultimately, work careers.

Public speaking is one of them. As a kid, you don’t see a payoff in the stress as you learn the art, but as an adult you see the limitless potential: you could use it at work in the private sector as a manager, sales person, project leader or newsman; in the public sector you would find it as an asset as a teacher or town councilperson; in volunteerism you would see its value in running a little league team, fire department, fundraiser, or church. You truly never know when you will need it – and you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, schools are lacking in public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2017 than it was back in 1987. Kids are rarely exposed to it in classrooms and it shows: When I was taking the occasional evening class at college 12 years ago, I would cringe when the students would give presentations; they were as painful for the listeners as the speakers. I can only imagine things being worse now, what with texting and social media having ruined many a young person’s ability to legitimately communicate with others.

You know that the young adults who can speak well did a little more at school (they were in drama club or were in student government) or they were in an out-of-school organization that gave them confidence and abilities (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, 4-H). So, that’s my word of advice to parents: The classroom is just one part of your child’s foundation – get him or her into a program that would complement and supplement it.

But, what about those for whom it might be too late?

It’s never too late!

Some adults don’t find their comfort level in public speaking until well into their 30s, after work and volunteerism forced it upon them. Most adults never do – no doubt you’ve heard many a time that the average person fears speaking to the masses more than death.

But, you can overcome those insecurities no matter your age. If you missed out in high school or college, there’s always Toastmasters, a wonderful program that fosters communication skills in a warm, guiding group setting in which speakers help you and you them. There are such clubs that meet in Lockport and North Tonawanda on a regular basis.

Public speaking should never be feared. If someone can master it – to be confident, fluid, knowledgeable and engaging in front of groups – they will set-up themselves and their organizations for success.

From the 20 November 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers