Posts tagged ‘camping’

Worker Mobility and Exploitation

The other day I commented on an interview with an author who felt that seniors living in RV's and "work camping" were somehow more vulnerable to exploitation.

Imagine a person in a small town with a home and she works in the local factory, really the only major employer in that small town.  If she thinks she is getting hosed at work, what can she do?  She can certainly quit, but then she likely must sell her house, find a new place to live, move to a new city, etc.  Basically, she has high job switching costs and thus probably would have to put up with more cr*p before she would leave.  Now imagine our work campers.  I once had an employee tell me that I had to treat him well, because he had wheels on his home and could leave any time.  And he was right.   Work campers, being more mobile, have much lower job switching costs.  Economically, this should make them less, rather than more, vulnerable to exploitation.

As a side note, this is one reason (beyond the obvious ones highlighted by the 2008 crash) that I have always thought the government promotion of home ownership was counter-productive.  I call this cargo cult economics -- legislators observe that successful people own homes, so therefore pass legislation on the assumption that having people own a home will make them successful.  But in fact I think for many classes of workers, home ownership is counter-productive because it reduces their mobility and greatly increases their job switching costs.  I personally, between the ages of 24 and 40, had jobs in 7 different cities in pursuit both of opportunity and employment that matched my interests and skills.  Had I locked myself into my first location (Baytown, Texas) I can't imagine I would be as well off today.

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.

My Customer Service & Communication Advice to the United CEO

My company serves nearly 3 million visitors a year.  Though we always try for 100% satisfaction, some customers are going to slip through the cracks and be dissatisfied.   Each year, I get maybe 10 visitors who are severely dissatisfied, think they were mistreated, want to call their Congressman, are going to sue me, etc. I would say that these complaints eventually land on my desk but I actually look at every single comment card and letter and review that we get from customers and personally am involved with every single complaint of any sort.  Anyway, 10 or so are severe issues with a very upset customer that get to me without having been resolved in the field.

Folks who are involved in customer service will tell you that of these complaints, there will likely be a range of blame.  In some cases we screwed up.  In some cases no one screwed up but there was a mismatch of expectations.  And in some cases the customer was acting like a total asshole and was entirely to blame for the whole affair.  Sometimes it is hard to parse out after the fact which case is which -- something I wrote about here.  When these major complaints get to me, here is my guide to how I respond:

When we screw up:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the customer broke the rules and acted like a total jerk:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the exact situation is unclear:    "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

In any of these cases, if the customer describes poor behavior by my employees, I will tell them that "the behavior you are describing is absolutely unacceptable and, as I said, I am going to investigate personally as soon as we get off the phone."  You don't have to admit the behavior.  It is common that angry customers will dress up a story with a few added descriptions of outlandish employee behavior that may not actually be what happened.  You will try to figure that out later in the investigation.   But give the customer as much as you can.  If the customer said the employee used profanity, then it is perfectly fine to say "you are right, ms. customers, use of profanity by our employees is absolutely unacceptable" even if you suspect the employee did no such thing.

Giving this very positive response to customers who may have been bad actors or may be exaggerating can be hard because my local managers want to get very mad at me -- "Warren, don't you understand, he was a BAD customer.  You can't reward him for being a BAD customer."  To which I will say:  "First, you and I have not talked so I don't know yet if he was truly a BAD customer.  We may be the ones who screwed up.  But second, even if they were bad in some way, I am not rewarding a bad customer, I am trying to avoid a bad Tripadvisor review which will sit there on the Internet forever like a turd you can't flush.  And third, you seem to be trying to teach this customer a lesson, and make them realize they have been bad.  Even if the customer is really a jerk, this is never, ever ever ever going to happen.  You will never ever convince a jerk that they are a jerk, because almost by definition jerks last self-awareness, so stop trying."

We do a lot of training on this.  I tell folks all the time that if we have a customer like this who gets to me, I AM going to apologize and AM going to give them a refund and AM going to give them some free camping.  It doesn't mean that I am undermining the folks in the field, it means that this is smart business practice, particularly in this age of Internet reviews.  I tell my managers that they are letting their ego and pride stand in the way of having a customer walk away more satisfied, and if they refuse to check their ego, they are delegating the task of being humble upwards to me.  And over time, the good news is that most of my managers have gotten the message and have started emulating me so fewer and fewer of these ever reach me, they are solved much earlier in the field.

Postscript:  The first reaction I get from other business people is -- "don't you get taken advantage of and give out refunds to people who are just posturing about bad service just so they can get a refund?" And my answer is "yes".  But recognize that we have had over $100 million in revenues in this company since I started it, and we have perhaps paid $500 or $1000 is false refunds, or about .001% of revenues. I don't think .001% is very much to pay for the very high customer satisfaction rate we have.  But you would be surprised at the number of people that just can't let it go.  I don't know what this is called psychologically, but I will give another example.  We have a number of sites where the entrance station is not staffed on certain days and payment is on the honor system.  I have people who work for me who really get upset with me, telling me I simply HAVE to staff that gatehouse because some people are not paying.  You are being CHEATED!  I say that I am perfectly aware people are not paying, but it costs, all-in, probably $120-$150 to have a person sit in that gatehouse for 8 hours.  In that time perhaps 15 cars will come in.  At $6 apiece, even if every single one of them is cheating (and they do not, we have very good compliance in most honor system locations) I would be paying $150 to collect an extra $90 of revenue.  That would be insane.  But somehow the thought of lost revenue just makes some people crazy, no matter how expensive it is to chase it down.

Minimum Wages and Price Increases To Customers: A Real World Example Today in Arizona

Our company operates a number of public campgrounds and parks, including about 35 in Arizona.  This is a letter I sent early this morning to the agencies we work with in Arizona

It appears that the ballot initiative for a higher Arizona minimum wage is going to pass, raising minimum wages as early as January, 2017 from $8.05 to $10.00. This is an increase of 24%, and comes on very short notice.

Currently, about half of our total costs are tied to wage rates (both payroll taxes and workers compensation insurance premiums are directly tied to wages and go up automatically by the same amount wages go up). Because of this, a 24% increase in wage rates will result in our costs going up on average by 12%.

It had been my intention to keep fees to customers flat in 2017, but that is now impossible in Arizona. This 12% expense increase is about twice the amount of profit we make -- there is no way we can absorb it without a fee increase. I apologize for the late notice, but I have never, ever had a minimum wage increase imposed on such short notice.

We will have to look at our financials for each permit, but my guess is that on average, we are talking about camping fee increases of $2 and day use fee increases of $1. This range of fee increases will actually not cover our full cost increase, but we will try to make up the rest with some reductions in employee hours.

Example of the Impact of Minimum Wages on Consumer Prices

I thought folks might be interested in a letter I just wrote to the US Forest Service.  I have left some of it out, but these are the guts of it.  As many of your know, we manage parks and campgrounds under concession contract for public entities.  As such, we typically must get changes to customer fees approved in advance by the agency.  This is a version of a letter we just wrote to a number of US Forest Service offices in California explaining the substantial increases to camping rates that must occur over the coming years to accommodate the new California minimum wage laws.

2017 Fee Proposal & Impact of California Minimum Wage Increases on Camping Rates

The purpose of this letter is to make you aware of the substantial effect that the recent increase in California minimum wages will have on use fees. I will get into details below, but in short the newly-legislated 50% increase in the state minimum wage is likely to increase our costs by about 22%, even ahead of inflation in other categories of expenses. Just to stay at parity and to avoid cuts in service, we (and other California concessionaires) are going to need substantial increases in fees over the next five years. Frankly, this does not make me very happy – our company will have to struggle with public resentment of the new fees without making an extra dollar in profit – but it is the reality we must face together. The only other alternative would be large cuts in service (e.g. bathroom cleaning frequency) which frankly I am not going to accept.

Background on the Minimum Wage Increase

California minimum wages have already risen over the last three years by 25% from $8 to $10 an hour. The new California law, which will apply to most concessionaires, demands the following timetable for minimum hourly wages (smaller companies with fewer employees than we have will have one extra year to comply):

2016: $10.00

2017: $10.50

2018: $11.00

2019: $12.00

2020: $13.00

2021: $14.00

2022: $15.00

Note that given the terms of other portions of labor law, these same sorts of percentage increases must trickle up to all managers and salaried employees in California as well.

Background on Concessionaire Cost Structures

Not surprisingly, as a labor-intensive service business, a substantial portion of concessionaire costs are directly tied to wage rates. The minimum wage increase will increase at least three categories of our costs:

  • Wages
  • Payroll taxes (which are calculated as a percentage of wages, so will go up by the same percentages as wages go up)
  • Workers compensation insurance premiums (which like payroll taxes are calculated as a percentage of wages and go up by the same percentage wages go up)

Looking at our financials for our California permits (we have three large permits in the Inyo NF and one in the Cleveland NF) these three categories make up 44% of our total costs.

Preliminary Estimated Fee Impacts

Let’s look, then, and how much our costs may rise between now and 2022.

For the labor and labor-related charges discussed above, we know that costs will rise 50% between now and 2022. A 50% price increase on 44% of our costs raises our total cost structure by 22% (0.5 * 0.44).

But all of our other costs will also continue to rise during this period by at least the national rate of inflation. It is very possible that these costs will increase faster in the future due to this minimum wage increase – for example, our waste disposal costs will almost certainly go up as the labor costs of waste disposal companies rise. For a starting point, we will assume 3% general inflation in 2016 and 2017 and 4% in the years after that. This would yield a 24% increase in the other 56% of our costs for an impact on our total costs of 13.4% (0.24*0.56). Combining these two effects, we can expect a total cost increase to operate campgrounds in California by 2022 of 35.4%.

Note that though we bid based on trying to earn a profit margin around 9%, our actual profit margin in the USFS campgrounds we operate in California has been between 3% and 7% of revenues (5% in 2013, 7% in 2014, 3% in 2015). There is simply no room in that margin to absorb a 35.4% cost increase. We are going to have to therefore seek fee increases over the next 6 years in the 35% range, or between $6 and $8 on the $18-$23 camping rates that currently obtain. This is about a dollar or year, or two dollars every other year.

Competitor Analysis

We understand that the USFS wants to justify fee increases based on market conditions. One problem we will have is that even though we don’t open until April or May at seasonal locations, we need to get fee approval the previous September or October. We fully expect private operators will have to pursue fee increases of a similar magnitude; however, they may not announce their new higher rates in time for our very early fee-setting process. This makes local competitive analysis misleading.

Fortunately, in California we have another large public campground provider, California State Parks (CSP), that has many of the same public service and land management goals as has the US Forest Service. They therefore make a very good comparison. While rates vary by park, CSP is typically charging $35 a night for a no-hook-up campsite in parks that are very comparable in their natural settings to USFS campgrounds.

We currently charge no more than $23 for a no-hook-up site in the USFS in California (both in the Inyo and Cleveland NF). Even with a $6 fee increase, we would still be offering no-hookup campsites at 17% lower cost than does the State of California today (and presumably even lower in 6 years given that CSP is likely to continue to increase its camping fees).

[Rest of the letter on exact fee recommendations and other contract issues omitted]

My Testimony to the House Subcommittee on Public Lands

If you are really bored, and I mean for values of boredom approaching "Maybe I should pull out my old Menudo albums and give them a listen," you can watch me and others testify to the Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

As you will be able to tell, I pretty much never do the Washington thing.  there really being nothing much my business needs up there other than to be left alone (unfortunately a vain hope most of the time).

This case is a bit unique.  Fees and recreation on public lands are governed mainly by a certain piece of legislation called FLREA (I won't bother with all the actual words, everyone just calls it FLREA).  The law governs fees the government can charge for public recreation, passes that provide discounts to these fees, etc.

The Forest Service has a unique program (at least among the Federal Lands agencies involved in FLREA) where private concessionaires don't just run a resort, like in the Park Service, but run an entire "park".  This means that, unique to all the other agencies, the Forest Service actually has private companies charging park entry fees ("day use fees") and camping fees.   In theory this should be relatively easy to manage, and the existence of the concession program has never really been an issue in these proceedings, but sometimes in the rush of legislation we are simply forgotten, and rules are written into the law that are simply unworkable for private companies.  A good example in this law is the long fee approval process that could require 18 months to change a fee -- this provision would be a disaster for us because we often have to react to things like changing minimum wages on a couple months notice.

Postscript:  Yes I know -- Moire fail on the tie

A Fundamental Shift in the Economy, At Least for Entrepreneurs and Small Business

When politicians argue about small business growth, they argue about stuff like taxes and access to capital and, god help me, completely irreverent (to small business) stuff like the ExIm Bank.

I would argue that there has been a fundamental shift in the economy relative to small business over the last four years, but it has nothing to do with any of that stuff.  I would summarize this shift as follows:

Ten years ago, most of my company's free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations.  Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.

Let me step back and define some terms.  What do I mean by "free capacity?"  In a small, privately-held company, almost all the improvement initiatives spring from the head of, or must heavily involve, the owner.  That would be me.  I have some very capable staff, but when we do something new, it generally starts with me.

So OK, our free capacity is somewhat limited by my personal capacity as owner and President.   But actually, I have a head full of ideas for improving the company.  I'd like to do some new things with training that takes advantage of streaming video.  I'd like to add some customer service screening to our application process.  But my time turns out not to be the only limit -- and this is one of those things that HBS definitely did not teach me.

In the real world, there are only so many new things I can introduce and train my line managers to do, and that they can then pass down to their folks.  An organization can only accept a limited amount of new things (while still doing the old things well).  This is what I mean by "free capacity"  -- the ability to digest new things.

Over the last four years or so we have spent all of this capacity on complying with government rules.  No capacity has been left over to do other new things.  Here are just a few of the things we have been spending time on:

  • Because no insurance company has been willing to write coverage for our employees (older people working seasonally) we were forced to try to shift scores of employees from full-time to part-time work to avoid Obamacare penalties that would have been larger than our annual profits.  This took a lot of new processes and retraining and new hiring to make work.  And we are still not done, because we have to get down another 30 or so full-time workers for next year
  • The local minimum wage movement has forced us to rethink our whole labor system to deal with rising minimum wages.  Also, since we must go through a time-consuming process to get the government agencies we work with to approve pricing and fee changes, we have had to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying price increases to cover these mandated increases in our labor costs.  This will just accelerate in the future, as the President's contractor minimum wage order is, in some places, forcing us to raise camping prices by an astounding 20%.
  • Several states have mandated we use e-Verify on all new employees, which is an incredibly time-consuming addition to our hiring process
  • In fact, the proliferation of employee hiring documentation requirements has forced us through two separate iterations of a hiring document tracking and management system
  • The California legislature can be thought of as an incredibly efficient machine for creating huge masses of compliance work.    We have to have a whole system to make sure our employees don't work over their meal breaks.  We have to have detailed processes in place for hot days.  We have to have exactly the right kinds of chairs for our employees.  We have to put together complicated shifts to meet California's much tougher overtime rules.  Just this past year, we had to put in a system for keeping track of paid sick days earned by employees.  We have two employee manuals:  one for most of the country and one just for California and all its requirements (it has something like 27 flavors of mandatory leave employers must grant).  The list goes on and on.  So much so that in addition to all the compliance work, we also spent a lot of work shutting down every operation of ours in California, narrowing down to just 3 contracts today.  There has been one time savings though -- we never look at any new business opportunities in CA because we have no desire to add exposure to that state.

Does any of this add value?  Well, I suppose if you are one who considers it more important that companies make absolutely sure they offer time off to stalking victims in California than focus on productivity, you are going to be very happy with what we have been working on.  Otherwise....

I fully understand the dangers of extrapolating from one data point**, but for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.

By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability.  You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money.  What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.  We are keeping up, but at times it feels like the water is lapping at our chin.

 

**Unrelated Postscript:  I have found that in the current media/political world, people love to have only one data point.  Why?  Well, with two data points you are are stuck with the line those points define.  With just one, you can draw any line you want in any direction with any slope.

Highest Rated Campground in Texas

We are excited that one of our campgrounds, the Double Lake Recreation Area, was named the highest customer-rated campground in Texas by this camping site.

Obama's New Wage and Hour Laws Worse For Our Company Than Rising Minimum Wages

Rising minimum wages are bad enough, but generally we can offset them with price increases (remember that, though, next time you get ticked off about your camping fees going up).  As an aside, not every business is in a competitive position that they can do this.

But the new Obama Administration rules greatly scaling back on our ability to have our managers be exempt employees is far, far worse.  Because its not just money, but it changes the entire relationship between me and my managers.  Most of my managers don't want to be hourly employees (you should see the complaint emails I am getting since I announced that this is likely coming) and have pride they have moved beyond timeclock punching.  Also, I think a lot understand they are not going to make more from this, and they may even make less.  To the extent they are working overtime today (and they all are) they will not be allowed to work overtime in the future.  So I will have to hire someone else to do those extra tasks, and that person's salary is likely to come in part from what the managers are making now.

These next few months I am having all of my salaried managers fill out time sheets just for analytical purposes.  I need to know how bad this is going to be.  If you run a business, you shouldn't be waiting for next year to do something, you need to be thinking and analyzing right now how you are going to handle these rules.

I wrote a long article on this here.  Stephen Miller has more in the same vein (via Overlawyered great wage and hour news roundup).  Here is a taste:

In McCutchen's view, the administration fails to understand that "it's still the same pot of money that's available to compensate the employee," whether a worker is classified as exempt or nonexempt. So if overtime pay is required, a likely result will be to strictly limit overtime hours worked, despite the adverse effect on productivity, rather than—as the administration expects—to increase the employee's annual compensation.

While many non-executive employees view themselves as professionals and react negatively when shifted to hourly compensation, "the DOL wants nearly everyone to be nonexempt, and to sign in and clock out as do unionized workers," McCutchen contended. "They don't believe that some employees prefer to be salaried, with guaranteed pay and the flexibility to adjust when they do their work."

Postscript:  I guess I just don't understand the vision that is in the head of Progressives.  How does it help their stated goal of empowering the average Joe to convert him from a valued, up-and-coming junior manager to a 40 hour a week timeclock puncher?  How will people ever be able to migrate from lower end jobs to management positions if there are not junior manager positions in which they can demonstrate their energy and dedication?  I suppose they must believe that junior managers will still be doing the same things and working the same hours, but just earning lots of extra overtime with these new rules.  If that is really what they think, they are completely divorced from reality.

Minimum Wage Deja Vu

This letter to customers from San Francisco bookstore Borderlands is making the rounds.  Apparently, the new "living wage" legislation in San Francisco is killing this store:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in [principle] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco – Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

I find the authors surprisingly open to the Progressive assumptions behind this bill, despite the death of their business.  I don't know if this is a pair of hipsters destroyed by their own cause, or if the nods towards Progressivism are merely boiler plate that is required in any San Francisco conversation, like having a picture of Lenin on your wall in Soviet Russia.

Anyway, I found the language here familiar because I spent most of last year writing such letters to angry customer bases.  In our case, fortunately, we had the ability to raise prices so the letters were to defuse customer irritation rather than to announce a closure.  Here is one example I wrote in Minnesota:

Labor and labor-related costs (costs that are calculated as a percentage of wages, like employment taxes) make up nearly 50% of our costs.  The Minnesota minimum wage is set to rise from $7.20 to $9.50 in the next two years, an increase of 31%.  Since wages and wage-related costs are half our expenses, the minimum wage increase raises our total costs by 15.5%. This means that all by itself, without any other inflation in any other category of expenses, the minimum wage increases will drive a $3.10 increase in our camping fees (.155 x $20).  Note that this is straight math.  The moment the state of Minnesota passed their minimum wage increase, this fee increase was going to be required.

One of the problems with these minimum wage increases is that the people behind them, with their hazy assumptions and flawed understanding of economics, typically think that companies will just absorb the increase.   Our net profit margin runs in the 4% range, so it difficult to see how any such retail company can absorb a 15+% cost increase, but it happens all the time.  After some trial and error, the "this is straight math" phrase seems to work the best in communicating the need for price increases.

Sign We Are Posting Today in Minnesota

"Due to increases in the Minnesota minimum wage, daily camping rates will increase by $2 in 2015 and an additional $1 in 2016."

Get A Password Manager

After reading this, everyone should be getting a password manager.

I am convinced that the best way to get someone's password is to break into crappy sites like hobbyist bulletin boards.  I am on 10 or 12.  "So what", you say?  What can someone to do to you on a bulletin board?  Not much, but since you likely have scores of passwords, and you likely don't use different passwords for every site, then that user name and password on that crappy bulletin board may also work at Citibank.  Then you are in trouble.

I got a password manager last year (lastpass) and changed every password but one to 12 digit randomized passwords that the program then remembers.  That database is protected by a complicated password I have never used anywhere else and is not a real word, and protected by two-step log in (via Google authenticator).  The only other password that is not random is my email password I have to use so often from so many mobile devices that I have a long phrase I use for it that I can remember.

This is undeniably a hassle, particularly for mobile devices where lastpass and other password managers are behind and harder to use (in part because there are not as many browser plug in abilities).

I won't say this is bullet proof, but it is much better (I hope) than where I was before.

Is it safe enough?   Here is my theory, which requires a brief joke first.  Two men are camping in the woods when an angry bear shows up, clearly ready to devour them.  One man quickly starts putting on his tennis shoes.  The other says, "You don't think you can actually outrun that bear, do you."  His friend said, "No, but I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."  You can never be safe, but maybe you can make yourself a comparatively less inviting target.

Update:  The biggest hassle of all is changing your password on a hundred sites.  There is NO standard for where to locate the password-change links.  You will think at first smugly that surely it is all in the "my account" section of each web site.  OK, don't believe me.  You will find out.  It is a mess.   And Whitehouse.gov was one of the worst, by the way.

Perfect Example of Government Doublespeak

An Obama Administration executive order / regulation (hard to tell the difference any more)

Department of Labor
29 CFR Part 10
Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors; Proposed Rule

34568 Federal Register / Vol. 79, No. 116 / Tuesday, June 17, 2014 / Proposed Rules

This document proposes regulations to implement Executive Order13658, Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors, which was signed by President Barack Obama on February 12, 2014.

The Executive Order therefore seeks to increase efficiency and cost savings in the work performed by parties that contract with the Federal Government by raising the hourly minimum wage paid by those contractors to workers performing on covered Federal contracts to: $10.10 per hour, beginning January 1, 2015; and beginning January 1, 2016, and annually thereafter, an amount determined by the Secretary of Labor.

Liberal and leftish economists in the audience, please explain the line in bold.

The administration wants to apply this to concessionaires as well.  This will force us to raise a $20 camping rate by $4 a night.

Our Business's Response to California $2 Minimum Wage Increase

Well, we have completed our response to minimum wage increases in California.   As a review, California is raising its minimum wage from $8 to $10 (or 25%)  in two steps starting this July 1.  I will confess that in some of these cases the causes are complex, and are not just due to minimum wage changes but also other creeping California regulatory issues (particularly the first two).

  • Suspended operation and closed on large campground in Ventura County that employed about 25 people
  • Suspended investment / expansion plans at two other campgrounds
  • Raised prices everywhere else, on average adding $3 to a $20 camping fee.   (this is inevitable when wages are increased 25% in a business where more than half the costs are tied to wages and margins are around 5%)

The only reason I take the time to write this is that I think this tends to demonstrate that 1) minimum wage increases can have a real economic impact and 2) just looking at job losses after the date the wage takes effect can miss most of this economic impact.

To this latter point, a lot of the impact is not necessarily job losses.  We see lost investment, which perhaps means fewer jobs in the future but there is no way to measure that.  We see price increases, which affects consumers and disposable income.  And we see some job losses, but note that the job losses were 6 months before the law goes into effect.

We are left with a certainty that the minimum wage had a real economic effect but a suspicion that, at least in this case, that effect would not be measured.

By the way, there may also be a lesson here for those who believe that the entire problem in the economy is one of not enough aggregate demand.  In the last month I walked away from a million dollars a year of demand, because it was impossible to serve profitably, in large part due to regulatory issues.

Measure of the Job Market

The other day I sent out an email listing a job opening next summer for camp hosts.  The job was in an out of the way place (in Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon) and had been hard to fill.  I have a list of 22,000 people who have asked to have camping jobs sent to them.

The email batch of 22,000 had a 54% open rate.  That is ridiculously high.

The Problem with Job Discrimination Legislation

Congress is considering adding gays and lesbians to the list of protected groups covered by the EEOC.  As former chairman of a group that tried to get gay marriage legalized in Arizona (at least until we were shot down by gay rights groups that did not want libertarians or Republicans  helping to lead the effort), I hope I don't have to prove that I have no problem with differences in sexual orientation.  But I have a big problem with Federal employment discrimination law.

If you are unfamiliar with how it works, this is perhaps how you THINK it works:  An employee, who has been mistreated in a company based on clear prejudice for his or her race / gender / sexual orientation, etc. has tried to bring the problem to management's attention.  With no success via internal grievance processes, the employee turns finally to the government for help.

Ha!  If this were how it worked, I would have no problem with the law.  In reality, this is how it works:  Suddenly, as owner of the company, one finds a lawsuit or EEOC complain in his lap, generally with absolutely no warning.  In the few cases we have seen in our company, the employee never told anyone in the company about the alleged harassment, never gave me or management a chance to fix it, despite very clear policies in our employee's manuals that we don't tolerate such behavior and outlining methods for getting help.  There is nothing in EEO law that requires an employee to try to get the problem fixed via internal processes.

As a result, our company can be financially liable for allowing a discriminatory situation to exist that we could not have known about, because it happened in a one-on-one conversations and the alleged victim never reported it.

What I want is a reasonable chance to fix problems, get rid of bad supervisors, etc.  A reasonable anti-discrimination law would say that companies have to have a grievance process with such and such specifications, and that no one may sue until they have exhausted the grievance process or when there is no conforming grievance process.  If I don't fix the problem and give the employee a safe work environment, then a suit is appropriate.  The difference between this reasonable goal and the system we actually have is lawyers.  Lawyers do not want the problem to be fixed.  Lawyers want the problem to be as bad as possible and completely hidden from management so there is no chance it can be fixed before they can file a lucrative lawsuit.

I worry in particular about how this will play out with a new gay/lesbian discrimination law.  We have employed a number of gay couples over the years, and never had any particular internal issue  (I had to defend one couple in Florida from a set of customers who thought that it was inherently dangerous to employ gay people around children camping, but I did so gladly).  But I know I have employees who have religious beliefs different form my own such that they think gay people are damned, evil, whatever.  So now what do I do when I have one of these religious folks in conflict with an employee who is gay?  If I don't separate them, I am going to get sued by the gay person for a hostile work environment.  If I move the gay person, I will get sued for gay discrimination.  If I move or fire the religious person, I will get sued for religious discrimination.

I am happy to work hard to build a respectful, safe work environment, but such laws put me as a business owner in no-win situations.  And the lawyers who craft this stuff consider this a feature, not a bug.  Heads I sue you, tails I sue you.

Should I Resort to Civil Disobedience And Re-Open Our Privately-Funded Parks?

I have gotten a lot of mail with moral support from readers as we try to deal with the fact that the White House has ordered privately-funded parks in the National Forest to close, flying in the face of all precedent and budget logic.

Many, many emails have encouraged me to disobey the order and keep the parks open for the public.  There are three reasons why I have chosen not to do so.

1.  Respect for Contract:  In my 25 or so lease contracts with the US Forest Service (the USFS insists on calling them "special use permits" but legally they are essentially commercial leases), the contract language gives the Forest Supervisor of each Forest the right to suspend or terminate the contract for virtually any reason.  Yeah, I know, this is a crappy lop-sided contract provision, but welcome to the world of working with the Federal government.  So each Forest Supervisor has the right to suspend our lease.  BUT....

The real question here is whether they have proper justification for doing so, or whether their suspension is arbitrary.  In another post I discuss why this action is arbitrary and unjustified:

Historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

While we feel good we have a winning argument, this is a complicated point that does not lend itself well to civil disobedience, but we are taking it to court and seeking an injunction to the closure.

2.  The wrong people would go to jail.  Civil disobedience has a long and honorable history in this country.  But the honor of such an act would quickly go out the window if I were to commit an act of defiance but others would have to go to jail.  We run over a hundred sites.  Telling my people to remain open would simply lead to getting my employees thrown in jail for trusting me and following my instructions.  That would be awful.  Just as bad, we can see from examples in the National Park Service that such disobedience would potentially subject my customers to legal harassment.  It's not brave or honorable for me to be defiant but to have others pay the cost.

3.  I could lose everything.  I don't want to seem weak-kneed here, but I would be dishonest not to also raise the small but critical point that I have almost every dollar I own tied up in this company, which does over half its business in the National Forest**.  My retirement and all my savings are in this one basket.   I would likely risk an arrest and a few hours in jail plus the price of bail and months of court appearances to make a point here.  I am not ready to go all-in with everything I own, not when there are other legal avenues still available.  If that makes me a wimp, so be it.

 

** you can be assured that the moment I have one minute of extra time we are going to be working on diversifying away from the US Forest Service as much as possible.

Why The Shutdown of Concessionaires is Arbitrary and Capricious

We are preparing to go to court to reopen privately-funded parks in the US Forest service that take no Federal money, yet have recently been closed due to budget shortfalls.

Our USFS contracts give the local Forest Supervisor the right to suspend the contract.  However, historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

Regulatory Suffocation

Taxes are usually the heart of the discussion when people talk about the bad business climate in California.  And certainly their taxes are just insanely high.  But for folks like me, an even bigger barrier is the regulatory environment. We are closing several operations in California at the end of this year mainly because we are just exhausted with the compliance costs and regulatory barriers to expansion.    In Ventura County, for example, we have  a camping operation that has never made money because it is under-scale. We have the capital and desire to expand it, but it has just proven impossible to do so.

A big reason for this is the regulation in California and in Ventura County.    We once had to get something like 7 permits just to remove a dangerous and dilapidated deck.  We added a 500 gallon fuel tank for fueling boats (to eliminate the unsafe practice of driving in and out of town with about 100 5-gallon fuel containers) and it took over 3-years of trekking to multiple county and state offices to get it permitted.  We thus despaired of trying to get a campground expansion approved.   Approximately the same expansion that cost us just under a million dollars in Alabama several years ago was going to cost over $5 million and Ventura County, and the County was still piling on requirements when we gave up.  And this is even before we fart with crazy California break laws and other nuttiness.

I have often told folks that I would love to see a liberal defender of all this regulatory overreach try to construct and open a restaurant in Ventura County.  It would be fascinating to watch.   (All this musing was touched off by this article on underground restaurants that try to sidestep this regulatory cost and mess).  We are a service business and California still has a lot of money, so we still operate in California.  But I continue to wonder why any company, like a manufacturer, remains in California.  Sell there yes, but produce anything you can out of state and ship it in.  Even as a service business we do a bit of this, no longer stick-building anything but having all our buildings, cabins, stores, etc built in Arizona as modular buildings and then shipped to California.  Even our labor force is partially "imported", as we hire folks who live in their RV's to come from all over the country to live and work at our campgrounds.

As I read the other day, if Silicon Valley were not already in California, would anyone in their right mind put it there?

Postscript:  One other story:  California's regulatory environment has caused a real shift in the culture as well.  At one location that we are closing this year, a local attorney has regular dinner meetings with groups of our employees to brainstorm among the group to see if they can come up with something to sue us over.

Discrimination: The All-Purpose Accusation

Today I got three letters with a subject line and/or opening sentence accusing me of discrimination.  Here are the three complaints:

  1. A camper did not get the $8 senior discount to which he was entitled, in large part because my new employee did not recognize his very old-style government recreation access card (I processed a refund immediately).
  2. A 20-year-old accused me of age discrimination when we told her she was too young to work in a store, despite the fact our manager explained patiently several times that we are prevented by law from hiring minors to sell alcoholic beverages
  3. A camper accused me of discrimination because we would not let him occupy a site clearly marked as having been reserved by another camper (who had not yet arrived).  This obviously is odd -- I am discriminating against people without reservations for reserved sites?

None of these folks appear to be a part of a legally protected group, nor did they site any treatment they received that was different from similarly situated people at the same location.  They just didn't like a particular policy and wanted to complain, but have been taught by society that the best way to get attention is to claim DISCRIMINATION -- sort of like a witchcraft accusation in the 17th century.

All of this is to answer the question of why someone like myself who has vocally supported gays and gay marriage for decades would oppose legislation naming homosexuals as another government-protected class.  I have defended openly gay employees of mine against ignorant accusations that their homosexuality somehow posed dangers to the kids camping at the park they helped to maintain.   But discrimination law makes me crazy.   Think of it this way -- bad things happen to everyone from time to time.  I am a white male, but despite this status I have gotten turned down for jobs, have been laid off from jobs, and frequently have received bad, even rude customer service.  Everybody does.     Discrimination law often takes these typical day-to-day indignities we all face and converts them, literally, into a Federal case.

Never Miss A Good Opportunity to Shut Up

It strikes me that a service business model that relies on frequently suing your customers is not really sustainable.

My folks out in the field operating campground face far greater problems with customers than any of these petty complaints that Suburban Express is taking to court.  My folks have drunks in their face almost every weekend screaming obscenities at them.  We have people do crazy things to avoid paying small entry fees.  We get mostly positive reviews online but from time to time we inevitably get a negative review with which we disagree (e.g. from the aforementioned drunk who was ticked off we made him stop driving).

And you know how many of these folks we have taken to court in 10 years?  Zero.  Because unless your customer is reneging on some contractual obligation that amounts to a measurable percentage of your net worth, you don't take them to court.

Yes, it is satisfying from an ego perspective to contemplate taking action against some of them.  There are always "bad customers" who don't act in civilized and honorable ways.   But I  tell my folks that 1)  You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes.  And 2) you are just risking escalating the situation into something we don't want.  As did Suburban Express in the linked article.

The first thing one has to do in the customer service business is check one's ego at the door.  I have front-line employees that simply refuse to defuse things with customers (such as apologize for the customer's bad experience even if we were not reasonably the cause).  They will tell me that they refuse to apologize, that it was a "bad customer".   This is all ego.  I tell them, "you know what happens if you don't apologize and calm the customer down?  The customer calls me and I apologize, and probably give him a free night of camping to boot."  In the future, if this dispute goes public, no one is going to know how much of a jerk that customer was at the time.  Just as no one knows about these students in the Suburban Express example - some may have been  (likely were) drunken assholes.  But now the company looks like a dick for not just moving on.

This is all not to say I am perfect.  It is freaking amazingly easy to forget my own rule about checking one's ego at the door.  I sometimes forget it when dealing with some of the public agencies with which I am under contract.  One of the things you learn early about government agencies is that long-time government employees have never been inculcated with a respect for contract we might have in the private world.  If internal budget or rules changes make adhering to our contract terms difficult, they will sometimes ignore or unilaterally change the terms of our written contract.

And then I will get really pissed off.  Sometimes, I have to -- the changes are substantial and costly enough to matter.  But a lot of the time it is just ego.  The changes are small and de minimis from our financial point of view but I get all worked up, writing strings of eloquent and argumentative emails and letters, to show those guys at the agency just how wrong they are.  And you know what?  Just like I tell my folks, the guys on the other end are not going to change.  They are not bad people, but they have grown up all their lives in government work and have been taught to believe that contract language is secondary to complying with their internal bureaucratic rules.  They are never going to change.  All I am doing is ticking them off with my letters that are trying to count intellectual coup on them.

To this end, I think I am going to tape these two lines from Ken White's post on the wall in front of my desk

  • First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  • Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand.

Gee, I Wonder Why Teen Unemployment Is So High?

I just opened a summer-seasonal camping business in Washington state.  Given that I mainly need relatively unskilled help landscaping and cleaning up from Memorial Day to Labor Day, one would think that this would be a natural place for high school kids to look for work.

Well, check out my new Washington business license.   This is not something unusual for me, it's the standard form issued to all businesses.  Check out the last line.

You can do anything you want, but for God sakes don't employ any high school kids over the summer.

Sorry teens.  I don't know what kind of special application is required to get the state's permission to employ you, and I don't have time to find out -- particularly since whatever additional license to hire teenagers that I need to obtain is likely to entail all kinds of onerous special rules and reporting requirements.

Update:  I get asked this a lot when I post such business licenses.  "Foreign Profit Corporation" does not mean that I am based in Sri Lanka, "foreign" in this context means that my original corporate registration is in another state.

I will give kudos to WA state on one dimension -- most states will issue me separate numbers for my withholding account, my sales tax account, my workers comp account, my unemployment account, my secretary of state registration, etc.  WA issues a single number for everything.

Public Employee Compensation Packages

I am with Megan McArdle in confirming that the non-pay portions of the typical public employee compensation package is at least as important, and as potentially expensive, as the money itself.  In particular, two aspects of many public employee compensation packages would be intolerable in my service business:

  • Inability to fire anyone in any reasonable amount of time
  • Work rules and job classifications

From time to time I hire seemingly qualified people who are awful with customers.  They yell at customers, or are surly and impatient with them, or ruin their camping stay with nit-picky nagging on minor campground rules issues.  In my company, these people quickly become non-employees.  In the public sector they become... 30 year DMV veterans.  Only in a world of government monopoly services can bad performance or low productivity be tolerated, mainly because the customer has no other option.  In my world, the customer has near-infinite other options.  And don't even get me started on liability -- when liability laws have been restructured so that I am nearly infinitely liable for the actions of my least responsible employee, I have to be ruthless about culling bad performance.

The same is true of work rules.  Forget productivity for a moment.  Just in terms of customer service, every one of my employees has to be able to solve customer problems.  I can't automatically assume customers will approach the firewood-seller employee for firewood.  All my employees need to be able to sell firewood, or empty a trash can when it needs emptying, or clean a bathroom if the regular cleaner is sick, or whatever.

For those who really believe state workers in Wisconsin are underpaid, I would ask this question:  Which of you business people out there would hire the average Wisconsin state worker for their current salary, benefits package, lifetime employment, work rules, grievance process, etc?  If they are so underpaid, I would assume they would get snapped up, right?  Sure.

Bonus advice to young people:  Think long and hard before you take that government job right out of college.  It may offer lifetime employment, but the flip side is that you may need it.  Here is what I mean:

When people leave college, they generally don't have a very good idea how to work in an organization, how to work under authority, how to manage people, how to achieve goals in the context of an organization's goals, etc.   You may think you understand these things from group projects at school or internships, but you don't.  I certainly didn't.

The public and private sector have organizations that work very differently, with different kinds of goals and performance expectations.  Decision-making processes are also very different, as are criteria for individual success within the organization.  Attitudes about risk, an in particular the adherence to process vs. getting results, are entirely different.

I am trying hard to be as non-judgmental in these comparisons as I can for this particular post.  I know good people in government service, and have hired a few good people out of government.  But the culture and incentives they work within are foreign to those of us who work in the private world, and many of the things we might ascribe to bad people in government are really due to those bad incentives.

It is a fact you should understand that many private employers consider a prospective employee to have been "ruined" by years of government work, particularly in their formative years.  This is simply a fact you will need to deal with (it could well be the reverse is true of government hiring, but I have no experience with it).  That is why, for the question I asked above about hiring Wisconsin government workers, the answer for many employers would be "no" irregardless of pay.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

My new column is up this week at Forbes.  This week it discusses the regulatory burden on small businesses.  Here is an excerpt:

Typically taxation issues get a lot more attention than these regulatory issues in discussions of government drags on the economy. But these small regulations, licenses, and approvals consume management time, the most valuable commodity in small businesses that typically are driven by the energy and leadership of just one or two people. If getting a certain license is a tremendous hassle in California, large corporations have specialized staff they throw at the problem. When a company like ours gets that dreaded call that the County wants a soil sample from under the parking lot, odds are that the owner has to deal with it personally.

So the ultimate cost of many of these silly little regulations is that they each act as a friction that wears away a bit more available time from entrepreneurs and small business owners. The entrepreneur who has to spend two hundred hours of her personal time getting all the licenses in place for a new restaurant is unlikely to have the time to start a second location any time soon. Since small businesses typically drive most new employment growth in the United States, can it be a surprise that new hiring has slowed?

Incredibly, after the column was in the can, I experienced another perfect example of this phenomenon.

In the camping business, July 4 is the busiest day of the year.  This year, on July 3, I got a call from one of my managers saying that the County health department had tested 20 ground squirrels in the area and found one with the plague.  I know this sounds frighteningly medieval, but for those of you who live out west, you may know that some percentage of all the cute little western rodents, from prairie dogs to chipmunks, carry the plague.  Its why its a bad idea for your kids and dogs to play with them.

Anyway, in the past, we have usually been required to post warnings in the area giving safety tips to campers to avoid these animals, what to do if one is bitten, etc.  At the same time, we then begin a program of poisoning all the lairs we can find.  It's about the only time any government body anywhere lets us kill anything, because only the hardest core PETA types will swoon over rubbing out a rodent carrying the black death.

But apparently, in the past when these mitigation approaches applied, the county health department was not in a budget crunch and in need of high-profile PR stories that would reinforce with taxpayers the need to fund their organization.  This time the health department marched out and closed the campground on July 4 weekend, kicking out campers from all 70 sites.  We spent the day dealing with angry customers, refunding money, and trying to find them new lodging on a weekend where most everything was booked up.  Fortunately we have a large overflow area at a nearby campground and offered everyone a special rate over there.

It is hard to imagine that, given the whole year to test, they just suddenly happened to find a problem at one of the busiest sites in the LA area on the busiest weekend of the year, particularly since they simultaneously changed their mitigation approach from notification to closure.   I have tried hard to find the original time stamp on the press release they sent out.  I can't prove it, but it sure seemed like a lot of media had the story before we (operating the campground) had been informed of a thing.  Incredibly, the health department was directing the campers to a nearby campground that was easily close enough to our campground to share the same rodent populations.  But that campground had not had a positive plague test.  Why?  Because that campground has not been tested recently, at least according to the official who brought us the news.  We're in very good hands.

Glass Houses

I was forwarded an email today, and I can't honestly figure out the source since it is one of those that has been forwarded a zillion times, but at some point it passed through the Arizona 2010 Project.  It consisted mainly of pictures of desert areas along major immigration routes that had been trashed by illegal immigrants.  This picture is pretty typical.

Certainly an ugly site, particularly for someone who lives and works in the outdoors as I do.

Here is a quote, I think from the original email but it may have been from one of the forwarders (emphasis added):

This layup is on an 'illegal super - highway' from Mexico to the USA (Tucson) used by human smugglers.

This layup area is located in a wash area approximately .5 of a mile long just south of Tucson.

We estimate there are over 3000 discarded back packs in this layup area. Countless water containers, food wrappers, clothing, and soiled baby diapers. And as you can see in this picture, fresh footprints leading right into it. We weren't too far behind them.

As I kept walking down the wash, I was sure it was going to end just ahead, but I kept walking and walking, and around every corner was more and more trash!

And of course the trail leading out of the layup area heading NORTH to Tucson, then on to your town tomorrow.

They've already come through here. Is this America the Beautiful?  Or another landfill?

The trash left behind by the illegals is another of the Environmental Disasters to hit the USA. Had this been done in one of our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks areas there would be an uprising of the American people........but this is remote Arizona-Mexican border.

Well, it so happens my life is spent cleaning up public parks.  My company's mission is to privately operate public parks.  A lot of that job is picking up and hauling away the trash.  And I can tell you something with absolute certainty:  This is exactly what a highly trafficked area in our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks would look like if someone wasn't there to pick up.  Here is one example from a northwest forest, in Oregon:

We run busy campgrounds and day use areas all over the country, and you would not believe the trash on the ground on a Monday morning.  And this is after the place was cleaned on Sunday morning and with trash cans available every 10 feet to throw things away correctly.  I have seen a few areas in the National Forest that were busy ad hoc camping areas -- meaning they had no facilities, no staff, and no trash cans -- and they were absolutely trashed by good old red-blooded American citizens.  Parts looked no different than this picture.  Most of these areas have since been closed, because of this ecological damage.

In fact, in my presentation I make to public agencies about our services, I say that we are actually in the environmental preservation business.  By attracting recreators to defined areas of the wilderness where we have staff to clean up after the visitors and limit their impact on nature, we are helping to preserve the other 99% of the land.

So, yes this is ugly, but it frustrates me that this is used to play into the Joe Arpaio type stereotypes of Mexicans

All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There's no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don't check people? No one talks about that! They're all dirty. I sent out 200 inmates into the desert, they picked up 18 tons of garbage that they bring in"”the baby diapers and all that. Where's everybody who wants to preserve the desert?"

To my mind, this is an argument against Mexican immigration in the same way that violence against women is used as an argument against legalizing prostitution.  Prostitutes suffer abuse in large part because their profession is illegal which limits their access to the legal system when victimized, not because violence is inherent to their profession.  Trash in a wash in the desert is a result of the illegality of immigration that forces people into stream beds rather than city check points when they enter the country.

Postscript #1: Please, if you are a good, clean, thoughtful user of public parks, do not write me thinking I have dissed you.  I have not.  Most of our visitors are great and thoughtful, and we really appreciate that.  But it takes only a few to make an unbelievable mess.

Postscript #2: I am willing to believe that poorly educated immigrants have fewer litter taboos than we have been acculturated with.   But I have seen enough to say that no ethnic group out there should be too smug.  For God sakes, there had to be a large effort near the top of Mt. Everest to clean up a huge dump that had accumulated of oxygen bottles and other trash near the summit.   Here are pictures of what rich Americans and Europeans do on Mt Everest when they are hiking and there is no trash can nearby: