Monday, May 2, 2011

Mowing the Neighbor's Lawn...

Today, this would be so, so illegal.

I had a dream the other night.  I was a suburban homeowner with the requisite 1/3 acre of greensward to mow, which I was loathe to do.  Billy, a boy from down the street rings my doorbell and says, "Hey, Mister, I'll mow your lawn for $10!" which sounds so Leave it to Beaver that I say, "Sure!  Why Not?"

And for generations, these sort of informal work arrangements were typical.  Kids needed extra cash to go to the sock hop on Saturday night, or whatever (to buy pot, more likely). And in an era before we had "landscapers" with their trucks, ratty two-axle trailers, zero radius lawnmowers, and leaf-blowers wielded by quasi-legal immigrants, we had neighborhood kids who would start a "lawn mowing business" to make a few extra bucks.

So we get my trusty Snapper out of the shed in the back yard, and I am showing him how to put gas in it and pull-start it, when a black Crown Victoria, which I had seen circling the block, pulls up and two men in suits get out.  One shows a badge.

"Department of Labor," he says, nodding at Billy, "Are you employing this boy?"

I am taken aback, "Well, he's going to mow my lawn for $10," I say, thinking (stupidly) that "honesty is the best policy" like they told us in school.

The two agents exchange knowing glances.  "I'm afraid you'll have to come with us, sir," he says.

"For what?  What did I do?" I replied, shocked.

"Well for starters, you are employing a minor, which is violation of child labor laws.  How old are you, son?  Do you have a work permit?"

"Work permit?" Billy replies, "What's that?"

Before he can say how old he is, I put my hand over his mouth. "The boy has no comment" I say.

"And another thing," the agent says, "you mentioned you were paying him $10 to mow the lawn."  He glances around the yard, and notes, "This looks like at least a two-hour job, so your are violating State and Federal minimum wage laws!"

He pauses, "Are you providing health insurance for the Boy?  What about a 401(k) plan?  Are you paying unemployment insurance premiums?  Being an employer is a responsibility!  You have to take care of your employees from cradle to grave, buddy, and you're falling down on the job!"

"But he's just mowing my lawn!" I protest. 

The other agent looks at me from behind his dark glasses and sneers, "Exploiting child labor!  And paying below minimum wage!  What sort of rock did you crawl out from under, SCUM?"

They are about to put the handcuffs on me and haul me away when a white Suburban roars up, replete with green stripes and "IMMIGRATION" on the side of it.  A uniformed officer steps out, wearing a flack jacket.  "IMMIGRATION!  FREEZE!" he shouts.  A second officer steps out behind him and shouts in mangled Spanglish, "IMMIGRATIONE!  EL FREEZIO!"

They both assume a kneeling stance and level their Glock 9mm pistols at us.  "Let's see some PROOF OF CITIZENSHIP, BUDDY!"

I start to get out my driver's license, and the officer shakes his head in disgust, "Not you, asshole!  The kid!"

Billy says, "I don't have a driver's license!  Or a Passport!  I'm just a kid!"

"Well, too bad for both of you!" says the officer, holstering his Glock, "because YOU," he says, pointing at Billy, "are being deported!  And YOU," he motions at me, "are going to jail for hiring undocumented workers!"

At this point, I have a bit of luck, as the Labor Police and the Immigration people start to argue as to who should have custody over both of us.  The Labor Police argue that they "got here first" while the Immigration people argue that the boy is a "threat to national security" and threaten to call Homeland Security.  "For all we know, he may be a terrorist!" they argue.

"Oh yea?" the Labor Cop says, "Well this guy doesn't even have a labor poster displayed in a prominent location in his workplace!  He's a serial offender!"

Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of a pickup truck with "OSHA" written on the side.  A bored looking man in work clothes with a clipboard, wearing a hard-hat and safety glasses, steps out.  "All right," he says, "who's in charge here?"

The Immigration and Labor cops start to argue with him, but he waves them away with his pen, "No, I mean who is in charge of this Job Site?"

"It's not a Job Site, Officer," I reply.


"Sorry, I mean, Inspector, it's just my lawn."

"I'll be the judge of that," he replies, eying my vintage Snapper lawnmower.  "No safety guard on that mower - that's a $500 fine right there.  I'm sure if I look around I'll find more."

He looks at Billy, who is wearing shorts and Keds sneakers,  "What?  No safety glasses? Gloves?  Steel-toed safety shoes?  Look at those shoelaces - they could get sucked into the mower!"

He looks at the boy's hand - "Did you injure yourself there, son?" he asks in a kindly tone.

"I just cut my finger on the lawnmower, it has a sharp edge on the handle."

"Um-Hum.  I see," he says, scratching on his clipboard, "Sharp.....Edge.....Handle. Got it!"

"I was just on my way to get him a band-aide!" I cried, "When you folks got here!"

"Never mind the band-aide!  This is a job for Workman's Comp!  Your premiums are paid up, I assume?"

He looks over at the can of gasoline.  "No grounded funnel?  These are hazardous conditions for pouring gas!  One little spark from static electricity and this boy could be a human torch!"

He whips out his pen and starts writing again on his clip board, noting offhand, "And it looks like you spilled some gas there."

As if on cue, a green van with the logo of the EPA roars up.  A young man with a pony tail hops out, flashing his badge in a macram√© case, and says, "EPA!  Did someone assault the environment?"

The OSHA inspector nods in the direction of the gas can, and the EPA hippie takes out a small sample bag and miniature shovel and scoops some soil from around the gas can into the bag.  "Yup, looks like spilled gas, alright!  That will be a $5000 fine and we'll have to remediate the entire area!  All this soil will have to be dug up and removed.  Is that your house?"

I nod yes.

"Well, that will have come down, too.  Gas may have seeped deep into the soil, and from the looks of things here, gas has been spilled here for a long time.  Got any abandoned underground storage tanks?"

"Now wait just a minute!" I replied, my anger starting to rise, "It's just a little bit of gas!  And people have been pouring gasoline in lawnmowers for generations now, how is that a crime nowadays?"

"Well, ever since we've mandated putting MBTE in the fuels, even a small spill like this is a toxic waste nightmare to clean up!" he smiles.

"So you're saying, you created the problem to fix the environment, and now I have to pay to fix the problem that you created?"

"Something like that," he replies, and clicking his pen, he starts to write me up.

This is turning out to be a bad day.  "OK, OK!" I cry, "I'll just mow the damn lawn myself!"

"Too late for that, buddy," one of the Officers snickers.

Neighbors are starting to come out of their houses, standing in their robes on this Sunday morning, drinking their coffee and staring at me.

Just then, a long black stretch limousine pulls up, blocking the other vehicles.  Several men in expensive suits with gold cufflinks pour out.

"I'm James Dewey, Attorney at Law" the first one says, "and these are my partners, Screwem and Howe, of the law firm of..."

"Let me guess," I reply, "Dewey, Screwem, and Howe. It's an old joke."

He looks hurt, "No, actually it's Howe-Dewey-Screwem.  Don't be a smart-ass.  Save it for the Civil Suit."

"Civil Suit?" I reply,  "What are you talking about?"

"Yes, we are representing the boy in a suit against you for injuries sustained in the workplace due to your wanton negligence.  In addition, my Partner, Mr. Howe, will be defending the Boy in the deportation hearing."

"Well, that's very nice of you," I reply.

"Nice, Schmise," Howe interjects, "We don't have a Civil case if the kid gets deported to Mexico!"

"I'm not from Mexico!" the Boy protests.

"Keep quiet, kid", Dewey responds.

"And I," Mr Screwem interjects, "am representing the boy in the sexual harassment case we are bringing against you!  What does go on in that garden shed, I wonder?  Billy, show me here on the doll where he touched you!"

This is all turning into a nightmare.  Police are all over my lawn by now.  Local cops have shown up to direct traffic.  Just as I thought it could not get any worse, a black Suburban with jet-black tinted windows pull up.  What scares me the most, is that the sight of this vehicle seems to scare even the other officers, who all become quiet as the car door slams, and a young man, neatly dressed in a black suit climbs out.

"I'm Agent Smith," he says, pausing slightly for effect, "Internal Revenue Service."

You could hear a pin drop.

He eyes the situation and then looks at me and says, "Have you been collecting withholding for this boy?  Social Security and Medicare taxes?  Have you been making estimated tax payments?  Detailing deductions on his pay stub?  Filing 1099 and issuing W-2 forms?   You are in a heap of trouble, mister.  And I'm afraid we'll have to audit!"

Mr. Dewey starts to step in, "Wait a minute, this is my pigeon!" he cries, seeing my assets evaporate before his eyes in a flurry of IRS liens and garnishments.

Agent Smith turns to Mr. Dewey.  "Ahhh, Mr. Dewey!  We meet again!  Would you care to go downtown with me as well?  I remember our last visit.  So pleasant!"

"Uh, no" Dewey backpedals quickly, "Take the pigeon, I don't care!"

The other officers are quiet and look down at their shoes or away, whistling softly.  They know all too well that perhaps some of their deductions for ammunition, or hardhats or whatever might be questionable. And they know that an audit would be a royal pain in the butt.  They don't want that kind of trouble!

Agent Smith looks around.  "You others can go now." he says quietly.  And with a flurry of slammed car doors, gunning engines, and squealing tires, all the Agents, Officers, and Lawyers get in their cars and leave.

Leaving me, Billy, and agent Smith standing on the lawn.  "So," he says, waving a taser at me, "Are you going to come quietly, or are we going to do this the hard way?"

"Hey Mister," Billy says, tugging his sleeve, "Mister!"

"What?" Agent Smith snaps, waving the taser inches from my face, the high voltage electricity sparking between the electrodes.  A glazed far-away look is on his face.

"Uh, suppose I was an in-de-pen-dent contractor?" Billy says, trying hard to pronounce the words right.

"What?" Smith snaps out of his reverie.

"Suppose I go back to my house and get my Dad's lawnmower and then mow this nice man's lawn for a service charge, as an independent contractor?"

"Uh, well, so long as you report that as income" he replies.

"Yea," Billy says cautiously.

"And itemize all your deductions, and make estimated tax payments."

"Well, OK" says Billy.

"And obtain a Taxpayer Identification Number, file 1099 for any people you pay over $600, pay your 18% self-employment tax, and properly depreciate your equipment on Schedule C..."

"Sure," Billy says, carefully.

Agent Smith snaps off the taser and gives me a look, "You're lucky, Buddy!  This time".  And he spins on his heel and turns toward his car.  Over his shoulder he says, "We'll be checking up on you, Billy!" and he gets in his black Suburban and roars away.

"Thanks, Billy, you saved my life," I say quietly. And we exchange high fives.

"Nothing to see here!" I shout at the curious neighbors, who slowly turn and go back to their Sunday papers and cold breakfasts.

Just then, a white Crown Victoria roars up, with the County decal on the side door.  A man steps out.  "Office of Business Licensing!" he shouts, "Billy, do you have a business license to operate in the county?  Have you paid your gross receipts tax?"

I whistle quietly to myself as they haul Billy away.  Poor kid.  I promise to visit him on weekends during visiting hours.  Meanwhile, I think to myself, as I pull-start the Snapper, "Hey, I just saved myself ten bucks!"

* * * 
OK, well the above scenario is a bit extreme.  But it illustrates, humorously (I hope) the challenges facing any employer these days - or the self-employed.  Every one of the scenarios listed above is based on some real law or regulation - many of which I faced as an employer.

Only in America is it considered "illegal" to work - to earn a living from the sweat of your own toil.  And only in America is it considered "illegal" to give someone a job, without going through a lot of arcane paperwork and regulations - and following a tightly scripted set of rules.

Work today is something that is tightly regulated and controlled, and yes, many of these regulations had some initial good purpose and intent.  And no one is saying that child labor or exploitation is a good thing.

But sometimes, regulations can go overboard.    If you want to hire someone, you will have to file papers with a number of State and Federal Agencies - State tax reports, Federal Tax report, unemployment insurance, etc.  And you have to set aside money for all of these things, and also provide to the employee an accounting of all this.  There are companies that will do this, of course, for a price - often a steep price.  And you have to make your "workplace" compliant with a host of regulations and rules as well.  In fact, it is just a royal pain in the ass - so just don't do it.  That's my advice.

Regulations have real costs in the real world, and we need to balance the costs with the benefits - it goes without saying.  You can't just say "Gee, wouldn't it be nice to...." without figuring out the attendant costs involved.

And no, sorry, but there is always a cost/benefit analysis in any decision.  People like to say things, like, "well if it saves even one life, it is worth doing!" in safety debates.  But even with life-threatening safety issues, there is a cost-benefit analysis.  We could save even one life if we outlawed airplanes and automobiles - the latter killing tens of thousands of people every year.

But there reaches a point where you can safety yourself into a corner - where nothing gets done as a result of trying to prevent events which are total long-shots.  And to some extent, we have done that in our society, with regard to safety issues.

In the employment sector, the same is also true.  In an attempt to regulate the crap out of the workplace to prevent injustices that are decades or even centuries old, we create huge barriers to hiring and huge barriers to entry in the marketplace.

And these regulations are why more and more people are being hired part-time, or hired as "outside contractors" by major corporations, as they don't have to comply with nearly as many rules for part-timers and contractors.   And since part-time people and contractors are not "employees" full-time, they don't have a roster of rights (but no corresponding responsibilities, of course) that must be respected and complied with.   Regulations have an unintended effect, and one effect is that hiring people is now very expensive.   Another is that we are becoming a nation of part-timers and self-employed 1099 "contractors".

But I anticipate the response from the far-left.  "Well, man, we have to prevent the evil Corporations from exploiting the workers!"  A nice argument, but, while we are on the subject, do you have the mandated labor poster displayed prominently in the workplace of your hippie commune?  I didn't think so.  Are you paying the commune members minimum wage?  Providing 401(k) benefits? Withholding taxes?  Providing healthcare?  Checking immigration status?

I didn't think so.  And yet, the hippie commune is an example of thriving free enterprise - where people work without permits and licenses or regulations - and largely don't pay taxes, either.  And yet, they would decry some corporation for doing to their employees what the commune does to its.  And yes, I have been to the commune and seen this first-hand - young people being exploited as essentially free labor to advance the ends of the commune leaders - who then decry the actions of "big business".

So before you get all self-righteous about labor law, think about your own past.  And think, too, how you may have worked "under the table" - or would like to, if you could.  We are all hypocrites in this regard - wishing that we could skirt such regulations ourselves, but would decry our employers from doing likewise.  And of course, we all like to think, as employees, that we have all sorts of rights but few responsibilities and then sit in idle wonderment when no one will hire us - or there are no jobs at all.

Is the lawn mowing scenario above far-fetched?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  When I was a kid, kids worked at jobs like this - delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, doing odd jobs.  All under-the-table income, all without regulation and oversight.  Today, we hire professional landscaping companies to mow lawns, and the vanishing job of paperboy is usually performed by middle-aged alcoholics driving cars.   The liability of hiring kids informally is just too great.  It just isn't done.

Kids still work, but usually not until their middle-to-late teens, and then in more structured jobs, such as in malls or other retail type jobs.

Big companies are not hiring right now because there is no work.  And big companies sent work overseas because it is cheaper to do so - in terms of wages and regulations and the cost of frivolous employee lawsuits.  And these cost savings outweigh the staggering costs of outsourcing.  They don't do this to be "mean" or for "funsies" - there are real costs involved.

Small companies would like to hire more, but the staggering cost of hiring even one person is enough to give anyone pause these days.  So companies use loopholes, like contract employees, or part-time employees, to avoid as many costly regulations as possible.  We all want to make employers do this and that - collect taxes, fund our retirement, pay for our health insurance, police our borders.  But think about it a second.  Why have we picked on employers to do this task?

Why not, say, retailers?  Suppose that every time you go to buy a Big Mac, they have to put money in your 401(k), pay your health insurance, and check your immigration status.  That would be like a $100 Big Mac, to be sure.  But the choice of employers as enforcers of public policy is about as arbitrary.

Unfortunately, it ain't about to change - and the far right is as guilty as the far left in this debate.  While it may have been the left that mandated all sorts of social programs be bootstrapped to employers, it was the far right that mandates "immigration checks" on employers as well.

And therein lies the difficulty.   One could forgive the left for their social justice causes - after all, it is what they believe, and at least their logic is internally consistent.

But when Republicans start tacking on onerous regulations to employers (as they have here in Georgia) you have to wonder at the insanity of it all.

Which, in short, is why President Obama will be elected in a cake walk (was that racially offensive?  I don't even know anymore).  The Republicans are divided into two equally sized camps - the libertarian, pro-business, small taxes, small regulation group, and the opposite, who want to see more regulations and restrictions, provided they advance a right-wing agenda.

But regardless, being an employer sucks, and you could not pay me to do it again for a million dollars.  And a million dollars wouldn't pay for the cost of hiring even one person.  Seriously!

* * *

I looked it upCake Walk is probably racially offensive, as it is based on old slave dances.  And yet, the phrase has been used for a long time to mean "an easy win" such as in "Cuomo will win in a Cake Walk"

But before I bash myself as a retrograde closet racist, I checked, and sure enough, even President Obama doesn't seem the harm in the phrase.   So I guess it is OK.  Learn something new every day.

Cake Walk.