Thursday, June 27, 2013


Earlier this year I took a group of local organizational leaders on a tour of the factory after which I told them that a quarter of our machine operators have what would be considered colorful criminal backgrounds; some had lengthy stays in prison while others are or were under probation.

This was a shock to the tour group because back in their workplaces – and in many throughout America – hiring of former criminals just isn’t something that’s done. The overzealous use of background checks for any position under the sun, as well as the dreaded “have you ever been convicted…” slot on application forms have forced many human resources managers to look at one-time lawbreakers as having the plague.

Well, let me tell you, they don’t “have the plague”. Most of those who spent time in jail or had their names splashed across the police reports in your local paper are, for the most part, just like the alleged straight shooters in the world. They want to overcome their histories. They want to make good on their lives. They want to raise perfect families. They want to contribute to society. They want to work.

When they are given that chance to work, they succeed. Ex-cons have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic.  They saw how the other side lives --- as a matter of fact, they lived it themselves -- and they don’t want that life. They know the importance of the straight and narrow and they relish the freedoms and rewards that the squeaky clean types tend to take for granted. A good life is one is one of the greatest motivators there is.

This shouldn’t be an earth-shattering realization for employers. But, here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed 1 year after their release because of the stigma associated with their backgrounds. Employers fail to see that former criminals come out of their pasts being better people and workforce ready.

Like our public school systems, our correctional systems should be looked at as more than just a cost burden, but also as an investment. That’s the whole point of the legal and penal systems in a civilized society. Our tax dollars help to educate convicts, teach them trades, introduce them to self-discipline, and reform their behaviors. It’s a mammoth undertaking of resources – the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year while the 2 million Americans discharged from probation annually had individually cost $4,000 for every year under watch.

It’s an investment that should be capitalized on, but, it’s obvious that the general consensus is “once a criminal always a criminal”.

Is that the way a just people should think? Judging by the outpouring of prayers whenever a natural disaster or act of terrorism strikes our nation, Americans are still a people defined by their Christianity. The religion is based on redemption and the salvation of sinners, so why shouldn’t those principles be practiced at large, including in employment? People shouldn’t claim to live up to the standards of their religion yet absolve themselves of its founding tenets.

Likewise, as another teaching of Christianity goes -- let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A lot of convicts and folks in the probation ranks were unlucky enough to get caught doing what so many other people do. Case in point: New Yorker’s arcane Rockefeller Laws imprison folks for years for having possessed drugs. How many people under the age of 70 can claim that they haven’t tried marijuana or don’t know anyone who has used/uses weed? There are very few for either category and those smokers were fortunate enough to not get busted for it. Similarly, how many thousands of customers leave neighborhood bars every day with a little too much alcohol in their systems and never get caught, let alone targeted?

None of that makes what the ex-criminals did right, but it should show that how they are treated post-release is wrong.

Give them a chance. Give them a job. By doing so, you are helping society to make good on its investment in its people and, in turn, you’re helping to improve your workplace.  

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer 

This column originally appeared in the 01 July 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


New York State’s Office of the Professions regulates 50 professions that require licensure or certification. Some of the 800,000 practitioners under its watch are certified public accountants, physicians, and psychologists.

Engineers, just as those other professionals, have to meet specific criteria in order to be licensed. Among the requirements is mandatory continuing education. During every three-year period during which an engineer is registered by the State, he or she must complete at least 36 hours of continuing education.

That makes perfect sense. Engineering is a fluid science - an art - that must adjust to new technologies, materials, and standards in order to offer the strongest, most-attractive and safest designs possible. Only with a lifelong engagement in learning the ever-changing nuances of his trade can an engineer appropriately do his job.

This standard of NYS Education Law (Article 145; SS7211) does have its weaknesses, though. It’s most glaring? Engineers who work for the State of New York, its public authorities and local governments and were employed by such entities as of December 31, 2003 are excluded from the training requirement. So, unlike their private sector brethren, the long-tenured government engineers are not required to make themselves better or learn the intricacies of, or new developments in, their chosen career path.

This disconnect is not only an insult to the licensed engineers in the private sector, but it is also an insult to our citizens. The impact that the under-trained public sector engineers have on our day-to-day lives is vast. Their handiwork is anywhere and everywhere. They are the ones who design the roads we travel on, the bridges we drive across, the power plants that supply our electricity, and the facilities that provide our drinking water.

Being now more than 9 years removed from their degree and/or constant and appropriate education these engineers may not offer the best concepts possible. Their designs might not reflect the use of newer materials or methods. Because of that, their designs have the potential to impact taxpayers in extraordinary ways: With no certified exposure to what other engineers practice, government engineers may be unable to apply some of the less-costly, energy-conserving and material-saving tactics that others use. For that reason, construction and maintenance costs will be higher than necessary.

The old ways of doing things are not only more costly, but quite possibly, more dangerous as well. A key reason behind the continuing education requirement (clearly called-out in the law itself) is the guarantee of professional engineers offering a product or process that includes "the safeguarding of life, health, and property." If this is so important - which it should be - why should seasoned government engineers be excluded from the clause when what they do so highly affects all of these factors? As mentioned, they are building our infrastructure and creating the facilities that give us sustenance. If they err in their ways, take an ill-advised shortcut, or use outdated if not suspect methodology than they are destined to put the citizens at risk. What if their inappropriately-prepared ways cause a bridge to collapse, a road to crumble, or the water supply to be tainted?

Because of this, government-employed engineers who have been under the employment of the taxpayers before 2004 need to be held to the same high standard that private-sector engineers or younger public-sector engineers are. Continuing education makes for a better individual and, in the end, a better and safer product. If this licensing situation is not changed this ill-advised placation of its long-term employees by our state government could put us all in harm’s way.

Consider that last week Transportation of America issued a report that said New York has 2,170 deficient bridges, a whopping 12.5 percent of the state’s 17,420 spans. Is that a symptom of the lack of training? Or is it a call for more training to help make whole our state’s infrastructure?

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer 

This column originally appeared in the 24 June 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I consider myself fairly versed on the nuances of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a Obamacare). I’ve studied the Act for years (even before its adoption), given lectures to local community groups about it, and written about it in these pages and elsewhere.

Despite such engagement, I still don’t know anything. There are so many ill-devised facets of Obamacare that questions abound about their impact, let alone their implementation. 

For example, Obamacare requires that employers provide so-called “affordable” health care that cannot exceed 9.5% percent of an employee’s household income --- not their income from that employer, but their total household income. How can an employer, with all of the federal and state privacy laws in effect, request an employee's family income so that the employer can assess the affordability of the insurance offered?

Or, where will insurance premiums be in 2014? We know there will be a $63 per person surcharge to cover the costs of the uninsured and there will be an added tax on health insurance companies (which, of course, get passed on to consumers). And then you have to figure that the medical device excise tax introduced this year will start appearing as an added cost of premiums going forward. These all represent just a portion of the new burdens.

Those concerns, just a few of many, are making Obamacare a great unknown for not only me, but all employers -- including the insurance companies themselves!

I've tried to find answers, but my questions haven’t been and won't be easily answered. Health and Human Services has multiple easy ways to contact them if you receive public healthcare (Medicaid and Medicare), but offers only limited ways (and a painful phone system with ill-prepared personnel) if you are an employer or employee who provides and/or buys insurance (go figure). Worse yet, the fed’s clerical individuals who are supposed to have the answers don’t because their bosses -- and those we elect to oversee them – don’t either. 

It’s so frustrating because 2014 really isn’t that far away (six-and-a-half months from now) and business owners need to have started planning by now. No business can wait till the eleventh hour (December) to make determinations about their healthcare costs and their budgets for 2014. Most businesses are much more forward thinking than that, planning things strategically years out, and, at a smaller scale, months, not days, out.

By time answers are available and the necessary federal and state systems are in place it will be too late (Are we looking at October if not a brief postponement/moratorium of Obamacare?). By then, employers will be scrambling to figure out how to insure/uninsure their people, how to cover the new expenses, and how to pass the higher costs on to consumers.    

It’s stressful enough for someone in my shoes running a business, but what about those who will be affected by our decisions? Right now, most Americans really aren’t thinking about their 2014 healthcare bills; they’re living in and worried about 2013. But, they will have to think and act once their employers do. What will they do if Obamacare forces their bosses to drop insurance or make all of their employees part-time or adopt a high deductible plan in which massive surcharges are paid by employees or drop spouses from health plans? Those responses will significantly affect the financial matters of a majority of households in America. If any of those situations or any other Obamacare remedies occur, how can the average family afford what will happen? They can’t.

So, the longer that answers are kept away from the business sector, the longer answers are kept from working families. That’s no way to run a business. That’s no way to run a household.

As a matter of fact, that’s no way to run a government --- is this really the hope and change everyone bargained for?

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer 

This column originally appeared in the 17 June 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, June 7, 2013


If you’re a homeowner you know that Medicaid has a dreadful effect on the overall quality of life of those who don’t use its services. More than half of your Niagara County property tax bill goes towards Medicaid, costing you hundreds of dollars every year. Combine that with what else you put into the Medicaid’s coffers (state and federal income taxes and 1 full percentage point from local sales taxes) and you discover that each Medicaid recipient in New York costs $16,000 per year while the average family of four on Medicaid places a burden of $64,000 on taxpayers.

If you and/or your employer pay for your health care you know those numbers are unreasonable. In comparison, a single-subscriber plan through an HMO is slightly more than $4,000 per year while a family plan is just under $12,000. That’s 75 percent and 81 percent less than their respective Medicaid counterparts.

From the standpoint of equality, that’s a major source of frustration for any reasonable taxpayer. He or she must cut coupons, corners and family budgets to pay for increasingly-costly health insurance and property tax bills, while others are receiving, with minimal effort, Cadillac coverage for free.

But above and beyond the concept of fairness, there’s the issue of fiscal responsibility. How can that same penny-wise New Yorker and the elected officials he or she puts into office take seriously the extravagance – if not waste – of our Medicaid program? Should it really be 4 or 5 times more expensive than private insurance? The answer is "no".

Albany politicians have been talking about Medicaid reform for years, all of them to a man knowing that the system is broken. Yet, the talk has been nothing more than that. If anything, reform has been in the wrong direction, actually loosening eligibility requirements and adding even more pricy gimmicks.

So, how do we change Medicaid and New York State for the better? There is a very simple means to do so, one that would be a win-win for both sides of the aisle (those who demand cost cutting and those fearful of hurting Medicaid recipients): Dissolve New York’s Medicaid system and redirect Medicaid funding to the purchase of private, not public, medical insurance. Call it a Medicaid voucher system if you will. 

The savings would be astronomical. The state’s Medicaid budget is approximately $54 billion. If HMO coverage were purchased, the state would save $39 billion per year and it would totally eliminate the burden that is placed on the counties; gone would be the sales and property taxes specifically set aside for Medicaid.

Residents and businesses would have $39 billion of their own money made available to them every year, allowing them to spend and save and do as they wish with it, pumping it into more-productive sectors of the economy which in turn would increase personal wealth and employ more people (taking them off the Medicaid rolls in the process), making New York a place that’s attractive to live and work.

To make such an idea come to fruition you’d need a buy-in from Albany – our elected officials would have to be willing to totally remodel state government and eliminate layers of bureaucracy. That would be a politically-arduous task.

Another obstacle would be the federal government. Medicaid laws clearly define minimum expectations and requirements. All of those are met by HMO, although the feds might not see it that way. But, any state attorney-general worth his salt can make a very compelling claim to Washington that a privately-managed system is satisfactory. 

A Medicaid voucher plan shows that the ideals of economic development and smaller government can coexist with those of public benevolence and big government: You actually can cut costs in entitlement programs without adversely affecting those deemed to be in need.

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer 

This column originally appeared in the 10 June 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers