Posts tagged ‘unemployment taxes’

Officious Insanity in Alabama

I got a crazy inquiry from the state of Alabama today.  I can't reproduce it without redacting a lot of confidential numbers and such, but essentially they said that we had originally filed to pay unemployment taxes in Alabama in March of 2009, but our first payroll report was not until April of 2009.  I said, sure, once we knew we were going to start business in Alabama, I applied for all my Alabama registrations at one time to make sure they were in place for the start of operations (this includes corporate registration with the secretary of state, request for a taxpayer ID number,  eGov account, state sales tax, state lodging tax, state boat rental tax, County sales tax, county boat rental tax, unemployment tax, and employee tax withholding).  I am sure I am forgetting a few, and to make things more fun, every state is different.  Tennessee, for example, has an entirely different set of tax types for businesses that I still do not fully understand.

Anyway, apparently most of these registrations must be obtained in advance, before starting business.  BUT, at least in Alabama, I was told today it is ILLEGAL (yes, they used that word) to register for the unemployment tax system before your first payroll in the state.  Apparently, one must register in arrears.  Because of this, I was told my account has to be shut down and I have to be issued a new account number  (which of course means more paperwork for me making the switch at my payroll company).   All of this over 4 years later because I did not have any payroll in one month and had the naive notion that it was better to have all my government wastepaper in place before I started operations.  I got the strong impression that this was the results of bureaucrats searching hard for something to keep themselves busy.

Sigh.

Trying to Start a Business in Tennessee

As I wrote previously, I am entering business in Tennessee, trying to reopen some closed TVA campgrounds.  I was initially pissed off that Tennessee is one of the few states that double taxes S-corp earnings.  I expect this kind of BS in California, but I keep finding more Tennessee taxes I have to pay.  Here is what I have so far:

  • Pay annual Secretary of State registration fee (Fixed $)
  • Must collect state sales tax (% of revenue)
  • Must collect county sales tax (% of revenue)
  • Must collect a county lodging tax (% of lodging revenue)
  • Pay state Franchise tax (% of net worth)
  • Pay state Excise tax (% of corporate earnings, even for S-corp)
  • Pay something called a county business tax (% of revenues)
  • Pay annual registration fee for county business tax (fixed $)
  • Withhold employee state income taxes (% of wages)
  • Pay state unemployment taxes (% of wages)
  • Pay state individual income tax (% of pass-through corporate earnings)
  • Pay county property tax (% of assessed asset value)

I am sure I am missing a few.  Except for #2 and #3 which are collected together, every single one of these requires a separate registration and separate monthly or annual filing.

But's Its My Hard Work Paying Your Unemployment

I found this story, from a Marketplace segment via Carpe Diem, especially irritating.  Our company has to pay for a lot of unemployment fraud, so seeing such fraud in action really annoys the hell out of me.

Quick background:  Employers pay unemployment taxes generally as a percentage of wages.  These taxes are based on a direct relationship with past claims from ex-employees.  The more of my ex-employees who make claims, the more premiums I pay.

Since I only have jobs for 6 months a year (it is a seasonable business), employees have the opportunity to file for unemployment the other 6 months.   BUT, the rule is generally that you have to be looking for work.

Unfortunately, I have numerous employees who work for me over the summer and take the winter off, but tell the unemployment office they are looking for work so they can collect unemployment anyway.  I have had employees call me from Mexico telling me about the great winter vacation they are having on the exact same day I see their names on the roles of those collecting unemployment (and thereby supposedly "looking for work").

In California, where such behavior is rampant (and where the state unemployment agency has established penalties for employers who even think about asking the state to investigate one of his ex-employees for fraud) I pay over 7% of wages in unemployment taxes, vs. less than 1% in states without such fraudulent behavior.

So, with this background, I am thrilled this guy is showing the initiative to find work but am frustrated he is still fraudulently taking my money:

Michael: I'm getting $272 a week [in unemployment benefits]. Which is just, bare bones. It's so bad that at one time I was going to the food bank. And, you know when you're really hungry and when you're facing eviction, you've got to do something.

Marketplace: So he started looking for work on the side. He found it pretty quickly.

Michael: So right now I have Craigslist open. And what I've done is I've opened three different tabs: I've opened free stuff, all gigs and all jobs.

Marketplace: He's found all sorts of work this way: software testing, landscaping, bouncing and lots of focus groups. All have paid cash. He says some weeks he's earned three times as much as his benefits check. Like everyone on unemployment, he's meant to report any earnings to his unemployment insurance office. Then they adjust his benefits down. So how does Michael answer the question, have you earned any money this week?

Michael: I opt to say, you know, no. I opt to say no, I have not. Because this is my own hard work, this is my own ingenuity, this is my own genius, and I am still looking for work every day.

You are absolutely right Michael, yours the same argument all productive folks make in the face of government expropriation.  In fact, I couldn't have said it better - "this is my own hard work, this is my own ingenuity, this is my own genius."  Brilliant.  But recognize that the unemployment money you are taking fraudulently was paid for with my hard work, my ingenuity, and my own genius.

Letter to Schwarzenegger on Unemployment Insurance

A letter I am drafting currently.  If you don't know how unemployment taxes work, see here.

Governor Schwarzenegger:

As a business operating in California as well as twelve other states, I have the ability to compare the regulatory and business climate across states.  And while I could discuss many issues with the state of California regulatory affairs, I will focus on just one in this letter:  administration of the state unemployment insurance program.

All the states have an unemployment insurance program with roughly similar rules.  The fund will pay workers some percentage of their past earnings if they are terminated for reasons other than with cause from their last employer and are actively seeking new employment.  Employers are typically charged an insurance rate as a percentage of wages that is based on past unemployment claims by ex-employees of that company.

Before I provide my observations on the problems in the California system, let me provide some data that helps indicate that California is indeed unique.  Here are our unemployment insurance rates by state  (we have roughly the same business profile in each state, though if anything our business is less seasonal in California so one might expect, all things being equal, that our rates in California would be lower than average)

New Mexico:  0.03%

Texas:  1.06%

Florida:  1.02%

Arizona:  3.30 %

Michigan:  1.5%

Colorado:  0.9%

Wisconsin:  0.25%

Minnesota: 0.40%

California:  6.2% + 1.1% disability adder

You can see that our rates in California are double that of any other state, and more than 6 times our average.  Further, the California rate could actually be higher by our experience, as 6.2% is the cap.  By the way, we did a study a while back as to why our Arizona rates were so high.  It turned out most of the claims were from people who had recently moved from California, and grew up under the California system.

In interacting with the California state unemployment system for a number of years, our company has observed two issues that raise costs:

  1. It is virtually impossible to convince unemployment office workers that an employee was fired for cause.  It is very clear they see their mission as making everyone eligible, and thus even a guilty plea of outright theft has not been enough to have the state unemployment office agree that a firing was "for cause."
  2. The state unemployment office does absolutely nothing to ensure that a worker collecting unemployment is actively seeking work, as is required by legislation.  We run a seasonal business, and our workers have told me the unemployment office tells them that it is perfectly fine to work 6 months and take the other 6 months off on unemployment.  I have had employees vacationing in Mexico for 6 months still collecting unemployment.  When I reported this fact to the state unemployment office and said that these workers obviously could not be actively seeking work in California, I was told by the workers comp. customer service staff that if I made such a claim, and did not succeed in proving it, I was subject to fines and even incarceration for making a false charge.  Of course, I dropped it.

No matter what the text of the legislation says or what you are told by the managers of the system, the front-line employees who make the decisions that drive costs see it as their job to ensure maximum payout to any individual, regardless of whether they are honestly looking for work or not.  I have, just as a test, asked trusted employees to call the unemployment office to ask about benefits.  They were told that they didn't really have to be looking for work, that no one would check, and that all they had to do was call in and say they were looking for work and they would get paid.  Your unemployment office was practically begging them to take as much money as they could.

I Too Want A Big Picture Job

TJIC has a great link to an article about a guy who doesn't want to grub around in the details, but wants a job to help a company see the big picture and move forward.  LOL.  I can't tell you how many times I get a request for that job.  People are always saying they want a job doing "business development**" or "coordination" or "performance reviews."  The common denominator when I ask people to explain to me what these jobs actually would do is that they involve driving around a lot to different recreation sites I run or might run and "checking things out."

I tell people there is no such job.  I tell them I don't have that job, and I own the company.   It's a TV-inspired view of business, like Dynasty or Dallas, where the protagonists run around and do all kinds of stuff that doesn't look like real work.

Yeah, I get to enjoy some perks now and do some cool stuff running my company.  But how did I get here?   Well, the whole story is too boring to tell, but here is one vignette:  In March of 2003 I spent about 6 straight 90-hour weeks trying to get my new company registered on the fly in 12 states and about 30 counties for tax withholding, sales tax, occupancy licenses, unemployment taxes, workers compensation, and even egg licenses just so I could use the assets I just purchased.  This was at the same time I was programming some add-ons to Quickbooks so the finances could be tracked and setting up some of our first web sites.  All while I tried to keep an unfamiliar company running.  And, oh yeah, while I was thinking all that big picture stuff.  Yes, I think about the big picture - and in fact, I have radically reshaped the positioning of this company over the past five years.  But that is what you do in the shower or on the stationary bike.

I don't explain all of this, of course, I just tell people that I don't have a big picture job to offer them.   TJIC, as usual, is a bit more direct:

Or, phrased another way: you're a useless drama queen who - instead of
compromising your principals and taking a job that doesn't match the
job title you want, and then growing the job position around your
abilities - you'd rather stay home and live off your wife's salary.

** The world's one great moment for such jobs was in the late 90's Internet craze, when every soon-to-be-on-FuckedCompany.com startup employed hordes of business development guys who ran around making grand press-release inducing deals that generated absolutely no money.  "Let's trade our proprietary online merchant services framework no one wants to buy for your proprietary online price management algorithm no one wants to buy.  OK, cool."  When I came into the waning stages of several such companies, the first thing I did was blow all these guys away, followed by a quick inventory of our soft and hard assets to see if we actually had anything anyone wanted to, you know, pay money for.  I still think the whole IT world is tainted by the memory of these glory days for produce-nothings.  Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs without having to actually first produce a salable new technology with their own hands in their garage.

California State Government Consumer Fraud

You gotta love the government.  In September, the State of California sent me a check for $81 as a tax refund.  I did not file for the refund -- they sent the check out of the blue.  Since no one human being is smart enough to keep up with all the taxes and user fee formulas in California, I just accepted it, cashed the check and forgot about it.  This refund was for my unemployment taxes, and I just assumed my rate had changed slightly leading to a refund. 

Then, in December, the State of California sent me a notice that the $81 was in error, and I needed to send it back.

OK so far, I guess, though they seem a little Keystone Cops with this.  But here is the good part- they claim I owe interest and penalties for holding their $81 since September, despite the fact they sent me the check out of the blue and it was their error.  LOL.  If this was a lot of money and not just $15 in interest and penalties (equaling a 97% implied APR) I would freak out, but at this level its just kind of funny.  I mean, if I as a company was running this scam with consumers, sending them refund checks and then asking for the money back 3 months later with interest and penalties,I would be going to jail, would I not?

Seasonal Business and Unemployment

Most of the campgrounds and recreational facilities our company runs are seasonal, meaning that they are only open from late-Spring to early-Fall.  Many are at high altitude, and are under 10+ feet of snow this time of year, so that they couldn't be kept open even if there was any customer demand.

The problem with this business model is that it tends to saddle us with a huge unemployment tax bill.  For those that don't know how unemployment taxes work -- and I certainly didn't before I got into this -- each time someone files for unemployment, the business is sent a notification.  If the person was fired for cause, or quit when work was available, and the business can prove it to the state, then the person is either denied unemployment or your business is at least not hit with the cost. 

In any other case, the person will get unemployment, and your business "experience" account is hit for your proportional share of that person's payments -- if you provided them with 100% of their employment the last couple of years then you get 100% of the cost.  Each year your tax rate (a percent of wages) is reset based on your experience account - so more unemployment claims by your ex-employees drives higher tax rates.

Even before recent problems I will describe in a moment, I have always felt that unemployment tax systems unfairly punish seasonal businesses.  Unlike at another company where a person might think they are getting a permanent job, then get laid off, my employees join in March and accept the job knowing that the job ends in September.

Well, I could live with that problem- we get hit with a month or two of unemployment until folks find another job.  Unfortunately, we now have a much worse problem, particularly in California (of course). 

Many of the people we hire are full-time RVers, meaning that they no longer have a permanent home, but roam about the country all year in their RV (I wrote about this trend here).  They work for us in the summer, and then many of them vacation all winter in places like Arizona and Mexico.  Unfortunately, many of these folks, particularly Californians, are filing for unemployment all winter while they play.

Now state rules, including those in California, require that folks applying for unemployment be looking for work, and so certify on a regular basis to the state.  However, a number of our folks are, I hate to say, lying about this.  I know of at least one pair who are on California unemployment and are not even in the country right now.  As a result, in California in 2005, I will be paying nearly 7% of wages in unemployment taxes, and the state of California will be paying in additional money from other sources, to help fund these people's winter vacations.

This really, really is irritating me, and I don't know what to do about it.  I have called the state of California on several occasions, but as long as the employee says they are looking for work, the state can't, or won't, do anything about it.  Some really annoying person at the state unemployment office told me that it was my fault, that my business should learn to plan better and this is the cost I pay for messing with people's lives by laying them off. 

Unfortunately, this "the business is evil, the employee is always right" attitude permeates nearly every state labor-related agency I have ever dealt with.  About a year ago I fired an employee for chasing a customer around with a baseball bat -- I even had a letter from the customer testifying to the whole sorry story -- and the state employment department refused to certify that the employee was fired for cause and our experience account got hit with all of the unemployment payments for this individual.