Friday, May 29, 2009

Save money and people with Shared Work

From the 01 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Throughout this recession employers have been looking for any way possible to cut costs and stay afloat as their sales tank and their profits go with them. Typically, the first thing to go is the workforce. We’ve seen this in plenty with the unemployment rate climbing near 9 percent nationally and 11 percent locally.

Cutting a company’s employment is a double-edged sword. The business can save plenty of money by doing so, but it ends up creating a great deal of problems in that company, our economy, and our homes.

Any time that a company lets people go during a slow period – be it a recession or a slowdown specific to that business or industry – the short term savings can easily evaporate over the long term. When things pick back up the company will have to replenish its troops. If their one-time employees, unable to hold out on the unemployment rolls any longer, went on to find new jobs, which is the case more often than not, the company would be forced to replace them with new workers. That is a costly endeavor because the managers will have to weed through resumes, conduct interviews, train new hires, and, in many cases, hire and fire until they’ve found the right people. Those efforts can quickly add up to the thousands of dollars in direct and indirect costs.

Singularly, a lay-off can hurt a company in the long run. Collectively, it hurts all of us immediately. Only a few months into an economic downturn it seems that a vast majority of companies start to lay-off their workers. When you have hundreds of thousands of businesses doing this, from small mom-and-pops to gigantic corporations, the ranks of the unemployed rise dramatically. Since the start of the recession over 5.7 million people have become jobless and no longer have the income available to spend on discretionary goods, leisure, and, most unfortunately, the basic needs of food, clothing, and housing. In essence, the lay-offs may, at the micro level, help save the day, but at the macro level they remove active participants from the marketplace which in turn sets off a domino effect that only prolongs the downturn.

But, lay-offs are more than dollars and cents. There’s a human side to them as well. Every individual who is let go was a breadwinner for his or her family. He helped put a roof over their heads. She helped put food on the table. He put away for their retirement. She saved for their kids’ college educations. You take away their income, even if it’s just one out of a two-income household, and that family is hurt. Their quality of life is lessened and their plans for the future become questionable. It’s stressful and painful, something you wouldn’t want to put your worst enemy through. Many employers understand this and letting someone go remains at the top of the list of the things that affect them the most in the workings of their job.

So, how does a businessperson go about beating the recession and saving labor expenses without assuming the countless negatives that come with casting-away a valued employee?

I strongly suggest that before they pull the termination trigger they first give New York’s Shared Work Program a try. My company participated in the program for 5 months that began in the Fall. I’m glad I did so. And, so are my coworkers. We all won.

This inventive program allows a business to cut back on its employees’ hours and wages by 20 to 60 percent (typically 1 to 3 workdays). The affected worker then collects his paycheck and receives an unemployment check from the State for the days he did not work (but normally would have) during that week. The company can be in the Shared Work program for a period of 53 weeks. Normally, during the 53 week period an employee can collect up to 20 weeks (5 months) of Shared Work benefits. Thanks to the Federal Extended Benefits Plan workers are now eligible for an extra 20 weeks in that period, meaning that a cost-conscious company could stay leaner and meaner for ten months out of the year.

The primary goal of the program is that it exists in lieu of an equal percentage of full layoffs. Therefore, rather than eliminating 20 percent of the workforce the employer instead cuts back on everyone’s workweek by that same percentage. By doing so, the company saves money and everyone remains employed. With only a slight and temporary decrease in income they all remain active in our economy and their households remain relatively vibrant.

The State’s tagline for Shared Work is “the layoff alternative”. And, what a great alternative it is…it saves money and people!

Friday, May 22, 2009

New York's Green landscape

From the 25 May 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Governor David Paterson paid a visit to the National Solar Conference that was held in Buffalo two weeks ago. It was the perfect venue for him to once again tout his goal – and, by association, our goal – of 45 by 15. Paterson spoke of the vision that he shares with his cohorts in New York’s various agencies and authorities in which the Empire State would by 2015 meet 45 percent of its electrical demand with clean renewable energy.

Achieving the goal in the next 6 years is totally impossible. Truthfully, 2025 is probably more realistic because we need to see some serious advances in technological efficiencies. Nevertheless, 6 or 16 years from now, New York won’t look the same. Wind and solar farms will dominate the scenery. You need to prepare yourself for that because, by today’s standards, tomorrow’s New York will look completely foreign if not alien.

It’s all because we New Yorkers are huge consumers of energy. Last year we used an average of 16.44 gigawatts of electricity. Even though people have been leaving the state in droves, demand grows every year. As a matter of fact, by that magical 2015 date demand will be 11% higher than it is today. You can chalk that up to our ever-growing love affair with all things electronic.

Simple math shows that NY will be an 18.25 GW behemoth in six years. In order to satisfy Paterson’s goal we’ll need to produce 8.22 GW of renewable energy. 2.5 GW of that is already accounted for (over 80 percent of which is produced at hydro plants in Niagara Falls and Massena). So, we need to produce “only” 5.71 GW of new, clean energy.

That will never be achieved through hydroelectric plants. The chances of seeing any new ones are slim to none...they are the bane of environmentalists everywhere. That means that all the electricity will have to come from solar and wind farms and plenty of them.

How many, you ask?

Let’s start with solar energy. Home improvement and green-friendly cable television shows would have us believe that solar systems are affordable options for the average home or business. That’s far from the truth. Granted, they may become affordable in a few years as technologies improve, driving down costs, but right now they are cost prohibitive. As an example, I was looking into a solar system for my warehouse in Wheatfield. The cost was going to be $340,200, which quickly turned me off considering it would have met only 8 percent of our demand which, in that building, is only for lights and heat. The return on investment would have been 2 decades.

Since the average person will not or cannot buy solar panels for home or business, solar farms will spring up across the state funded by a combination of private and public dollars (the latter, ironically, is your money being spent on solar energy anyways). Solar projects quite similar to the one NYPA plans to build at the University at Buffalo will become the norm. That sprawling system will feature 5,000 panels and cover 5 acres of land yet it will produce only 1 MW at full capacity. The Power Authority’s ultimate goal is 150 MW of solar energy though a public/private partnership, equating to more than 150 of these across New York.

With solar energy essentially minimized by the State and the people, the remainder, some 5.56 GW of power, will have to come from wind energy. Windmills, like solar panels, are little too expensive for the average business or resident, but it’s nothing for investors to see benefit in them, hence the wind farms cropping up, or being applied for, all over the state. Commercial windmills can vary in theoretical output from a third of a MW to just over 3 MW. Due to a variety of factors like wind and the laws of science, most windmills will see efficiency of no better than 20 to 40 percent. Therefore, your “typical” windmill, like the 1.5 MW windmills you see in Wyoming County, can only produce an average of 500 kilowatts (half of a megawatt). In order to meet the state’s wishes, 11,000 windmills using today’s technology would need to be built across the state. There are 75 in the town of Sheldon. Just imagine another 150 wind farms of that size.

I’ve heard a mix of opinions about our changing landscape. I know people who find the windmills and their dancing blades to be soothing and attractive. I also know others who find solace in solar and wind projects and their positive impact on the environment. Yet, I know just as many who consider them to be eyesores and even detrimental to the environment. Like everything associated with the Green Movement, beauty, truth and acceptance are in the eyes of the beholder.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The UN and the Law of the Sea

From the 18 May 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Earlier this month one-time presidential candidate and influential senator John Kerry announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the very committee that he chairs, that one of his goals for 2009 is getting the United States to sign on to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

LOST was first introduced by the UN in 1982 and since then 157 nations have joined the pact. The treaty gives the UN oversight of the open seas which account for over 70 percent of the world’s surface. Under ratification, the affected nations are at the mercy of the UN when it comes to economic development, environmental issues and commercial, recreational and naval navigation on the oceans.

To those who live in fear of Somali pirates or melting polar ice caps there may be some comfort in that. But, LOST is more horrific than it sounds; it is a monster, one of nautical omnipotence. The treaty features some pretty powerful language and there is one little three-letter word (“all”) that makes the greatest impact. It is used throughout the document as the UN claims that it has the right to regulate all activities on all ocean space, which includes everything on, under, and above the water.

That means that were the US to sign on, we’d be giving-up our sovereignty, becoming subjects of the UN, which is not something in our best interests. No longer could our navy freely sail the oceans. It would first need authorization from an external higher power that is neither our Congress nor our Commander-In-Chief. The same would hold true for our private fleets: By ratifying the treaty we would allow ourselves to be regulated and taxed by a non-representative entity, as the UN would be able to dictate what US commercial activity is allowed on the seas, and at the same time, reap tax revenues from that activity.

Not only would our sovereignty be cast aside abroad, it would also take a serious hit right here on the home front. Under LOST, the United States would have to give up the rights to our territorial waters, a border so very important to our national defense and well-being. What we can and cannot do in that region would be dictated solely by the UN. On top of that, the treaty’s power over everything that affects the oceans would allow the UN to manage all the waters that flow into seas, be it the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi or the run-off from a coastal home or farm. Yes, we would give up our rights not just on the water, but on land as well!

Despite the significant flaws with LOST it’s foreseeable that Senator Kerry will make his agenda come to fruition this year because he has an alliance of like-minded, globalism-loving individuals on his side. In past attempts to force the United States into the agreement the lone hurdle has always been the small-government, anti-UN conservatives who were able to force a procedural impasse. But, now that the Democrats control the Senate it’s a different story. It would take only 67 votes to ratify the treaty and, if partisanship held true, Kerry would need to bring only 8 Republicans over to his side. Looking at all the various supporters of LOST that will be an easy task: Joining Kerry in his cause are President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, seven coastal governors and that bastion of Republican cronyism, the US Chamber of Commerce.

It’s disheartening to see such a list of influential people and organizations behind LOST, knowing full well that the treaty will eliminate plenty of our rights and a good amount of American power. It makes you wonder what they’re thinking. Why would they want our naval superiority to become a thing of the past? Why would they want our border waters to be under the control of a multinational organization? Why would they want to stifle commercial trade and fishing? Whose side are they on, that of the US or the UN?

With questions like that, it’s important that you call and write your US senator and even those senators who don’t count you as a constituent. Let them know that you won’t stand for the reckless giveaway of our rights, rights that millions of men and women have fought and died for. Remember, active public uproar worked with the border issue a couple years ago. So, there’s no reason why it couldn’t help prevent our involvement in LOST.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The significance of Scouting

From the 11 May 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

What do Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Walter Cronkite, and William DeVries have in common?

All of them were members of the Boy Scouts of America who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and went on to do great things.

That begs the question: Would they have contributed to society as much as they did were they not scouts? Would they have led our nation, walked on the moon, spoke to a people, or transplanted hearts? Maybe. Maybe not.

What can be said with some certainty, though, is that the BSA had a significant impact on their lives and is partially responsible for what drove them to greatness. It taught them the values of community, work ethic and leadership which cannot be found in our schools or in many homes. It has done the same for millions of young men since its inception in 1910, inspiring, if not creating, yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

The Scouting program is just as important now as it was nearly a century ago. It could even be argued that it might have greater significance today. It’s the perfect outlet for today’s youth and it can help them overcome some of the obstacles in their paths. There’s a lot missing in their lives: Their outdoor pursuits have taken a back seat to new-fangled electronics, they don’t share the same bond with their real-world communities that they do with their trivial Internet communities, their schools have totally lost sight of civic education, and they struggle to find continuity in broken homes which, sadly, have become the norm.

The BSA addresses all those issues and then some. Camping and other outdoor activities are the cornerstone of the Scouting program, using the struggles and successes of pastoral adventure as a source of experiential learning, teaching the boys a wide variety of skills accompanied by a powerful mix of leadership, teamwork, self-reliance and self-confidence. Scouting also gets them out and about in their towns and villages, fostering a sense of community pride and a desire to help make better the world around them. It is all of this - in combination with the guidance provided by peers and scoutmasters - that can give today’s youth the support needed to survive a broken home or beat a broken community.

Not only does this help the boy, it also helps the parent. Many mothers and fathers struggle to help their son find his voice, his calling, in any number of activities, be they sports, bands or other extracurricular activities. Quite often these families find themselves with a void, unable to satisfy their desire to better their sons. Scouting is the one-stop source that can alleviate that stress. It combines the best of everything else into an all-encompassing program, one guaranteed to keep a boy’s attention and interest and one destined to make him a better man. For today’s busy parents, it’s a convenient option for those who feel spread thin: It’s one meeting a week, one campout a month, and one week-long trip a year. That small investment of time can create a lifetime of memories and, more importantly, a lifetime of success. Scouting accounts for better students, better citizens, and a better America by instilling timeless values and character into young men.

Take it from someone who was a Boy Scout and who himself achieved the rank of Eagle. I know I would not be the man I am now had it not been for Scouting. I never would have been a columnist or activist without its inspiring ways. Secondary schools and colleges spend so little time on civic and community responsibility that to most folks it’s an afterthought. Scouting’s lessons more than made up for that and created the drive behind these columns, not to mention the values that I apply in my day-to-day decisions. The BSA was so important to me that I place its importance on my upbringing second behind my family and far ahead of schooling at a distant third. It’s that significant.

It can have that same effect on your son, too. I strongly suggest that he give it a try. Visit to find a local scout council near you that can assist in finding a troop in your hometown. Joining the Boy Scouts of America is a decision you – and your son - won’t regret.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Coyotes, pirates and the Constitution

From the 04 May 2009: Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The Walt Disney Effect has been out in full force lately.

Thanks to the plethora of movies that show animals having anthropomorphic tendencies – that is, they talk and act like humans – people tend to think even the wildest of beasts are cute and cuddly and just dying to be friendly with Mankind. The thing is, they’re not. As we’ve seen with the recent close encounters with foxes and coyotes (some of which were purposeful thanks to the Effect), wild animals are, well, wild and they’ll attack. They really don’t like us at all.

That same dangerous Walt Disney Effect can be seen on the Seven Seas. Over the past decade or so piracy has become extremely popular in the waters off the Somali and Nigerian coasts. This increase in nautical crime has been reported in the press throughout the world but indifference has been cast its way (especially in the United States) because our society is guilty of giving these animals some anthropomorphic traits of their own. Hollywood has always granted pirates a respectable air and many of the on-screen scoundrels – like Walt Disney’s Jack Sparrow, for one – are downright likeable. Reality is anything but. Much like the aforementioned wild canines, they are bloodthirsty curs who you would not want to count as your friends. They are carnivores of the open seas and they should be treated as such.

But, they haven’t been. Very few Americans raised an eyebrow about piracy until one of their own, Captain Richard Phillips, was captured by and subsequently rescued from a band of Somali water thugs. Because of the crisis finally hitting home, we’ve all come to the conclusion that pirates are a real threat.

So, what do we do about it? How do we prevent future attacks? How do we ensure that we never see a hostage situation again? How do we guarantee that no innocent mariners die?

We could follow the same tactic that was used on the troublesome urban coyote and its friends. It was killed by the police and efforts are in place to institute a nuisance control plan that will rid the area of others.

Yes, I’ve just called for the spilling of pirate blood…if not the capture of the animals.

It doesn’t make sense, though, to put naval fleets into waters the world over. We didn’t put a policeman or game control officer at every corner to catch the coyote. It’s impractical, it’s costly and, above all, it’s not the best thing for community relations. Just as a good many citizens feel threatened by a heightened police presence in their neighborhood, so do other countries when they see increased military activity in their neighboring waters. The US and Russia have both contributed naval craft to policing the seas, much to the chagrin of others.

It makes the most sense to empower the private craft to protect themselves. Not only is it the most cost-effective and diplomatically-friendly method, but it’s the one most befitting the situation. These craft are the ones coming into contact with the pirates and they are the ones who must fight for survival. Survival is a natural right and, believe it or not, having armed sailors is our Constitutional right.

It’s a little-known fact that the US Constitution allows Congress to essentially deputize private individuals to protect American interests on international waters. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have power… To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water…” It is those letters, contracts of sort, which would authorize a seafarer to take the law into his own hands and engage the pirates in gun play when threatened. Without such legal authorization, the mariner – who was trying to protect the safety of crew and cargo – could theoretically be looked at as a pirate under international law.

Letters of marque and reprisal are long overdue. They have been used only once since the War of 1812 (by the submarine hunter the Resolute during World War II). It’s a little dumbfounding that shippers haven’t been granted their right sooner. Most of these boats have navigated into pirate-laden waters without the weaponry necessary to protect themselves. That means that every minute of every day is a gamble for them. If Congress signed-off on their ability to act in a defensive/offensive manner the gamble would be gone. The first cargo ship that stops a potential takeover by blasting at pirate craft with 7.62 mm machine guns and short range explosives will make a statement that will resonate throughout the African shores: Private boats will no longer be easy prey of those animals.

That’s how you stop piracy. Sometimes, a bullet is the only way to handle a pest.