In the Trenches: Goin' and Comin'

It was early April of last year when my screen printer of almost 20 years walked in my office, threw her keys on my desk and said, “I quit.” She said something about being tired of something that had been bugging her and turned to go out the door.

For many years we enjoyed a fairly good working relationship, and I expected there was something else going on and spoke up quickly as I said, “Now come back in here and tell me what’s really on your mind. Don’t just walk out after all these years with no explanation at all. I think I might deserve a bit more than that.”

After a few minutes of talking, it became clear that, though she had been somewhat frustrated with her job lately, what really was going on was that she had been offered a higher-paying job locally in the then booming natural gas drilling business. She was to be located out on a drilling site doing chemical tests on drilling samples as they came out of the ground for a support services contractor doing that type of work. And the new job was to pay her quite a bit more than I could.

Well, I could relate to that and certainly can’t blame any staff member for quitting to take a better job. But to come in, act mad and throw down her set of keys seemed a bit over the top. I responded by saying, “I know you are in the middle of at least two or three jobs at the moment, and the pay week ends in two days. I wish you would consider working until then and at least finishing the work you’ve started.”

This must have seemed reasonable. And after 20 years of working together, this little pep talk gained me two days notice. After that, I knew I would be the temporary screen printer until I could find and train someone else, however long that would take.

Regular readers of these “Trenches” articles may realize I’ve told part of this story before, but here is the rest of the story. A year and three months had passed, and a lot has changed in our economy since then. Recently, and to my surprise, I found a notice in the mail from the Texas Unemployment Commission concerning this long-gone employee.

With considerable frustration, I read that our company had been filed to pay unemployment benefits due to my ex-screen printer for the three months she had been on our staff during the timeframe dating back to the beginning of 2008. And those benefits were about to cost me $2,500 of capital I didn’t need to part with just then.

Now, we have paid unemployment insurance to the state of Texas and the federal government for the past 30-something years and have never laid off a single employee. And we didn’t lay off that one, either. When someone just walks out, I did not think we are liable for those benefits. And, by the way, why in the world have we been paying for those unemployment insurance payments all these years, anyway?

By my calculations, if this employee had been on our staff the last 15 months and we laid her off, we would have been charged five times what we were billed for — a whopping $12,500! How in the world can any company, no matter how hard the times, afford to lay off anyone?

In the notice I received, there was a paragraph about contesting our assessed expenses, and there only were two items that would be considered by the state to determine if we had to pay. First, there was the exact terms under which said employee left our employment and, second, how long it took us to respond to the sent notice.

Well, you can bet it didn’t take long because, before the state of Texas bureaucrats even smelled their coffee the next morning, my signed copy of that notice--complete with an accurate explanation of the exit of the employee in question--was sent to their official fax number, and the original was in a postage-paid envelope in our mailbox headed for beautiful downtown Austin, Texas, as well.

In America today, small business pays way more than its share of the funds it takes to run this country. Why, just property taxes on our two shops and the equipment it takes to run our small sign business is enough to make us run nonprofit for the first few months of the year. And it truly is amazing when you add up sales taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, the owner’s income and self-employment taxes just how much money one small business contributes to the tax coffers every year.

But paying a large unemployment penalty for a worker who just walks of the job was one tax too many, as far as I was concerned. And, wonder of wonders, in a week or two, the state of Texas responded by mail that they agreed with me, and we didn’t owe the $2,500, after all.

Well, there still must be little sanity left in the world. I can hardly believe it, but I am thankful. And I share this little incident with all employers out there reading “In the Trenches” as an unofficial warning about how expensive it can be to have to let employees go, even though there are times when one has no choice.

Through this slowdown in the economy, we are doing all we can to keep everyone on our staff working and maintain the status quo or even find a way to grow, if there is one. I hope your business is doing the same or better. And if there are any surprises in your mail —I hope they are checks!

Have a great month.