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DC COUNCIL ACTION AUGERS ILL FOR CITY’S SMALL BUSINESSES AS THEY CONTEMPLATE THE ONSET OF ECONOMIC RECESSION AND THE PROSPECT OF FAILURE

Rather then being given a break as they see their profits on the verge of slipping away while the region slips into recession, just 48 hours before we went to press we were appalled to watch as the city council, instead of offering to have lifelines at the ready, took action to tie lead weights onto the feet of small business owners that will ensure they will sink in the coming months.

We refer to the well-intentioned but terribly flawed bill that will require all business to provide paid sick days to both full-time and part-time employees — a very unusual mandate; only San Francisco has such a requirement.

Now, before readers get the idea that we are heartless “compassionate conservatives,” let us assure our readers that we are philosophically far from that crowd. But we are pragmatists, and when we see that a well-meaning social program’s financing is to be imposed on struggling business taxpayers just because, as some members of the council said, “it’s the right thing to do,” we have to wonder what planet they are on.

Notwithstanding that several members during the debate did acknowledge that the economic landscape and climate — even here in the District — has taken a noticeably worrying turn for the worse since the time the bill was introduced last year, in the end they merely paid lip service to this and blasted on, full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes.

The torpedoes are the costs that will sink the small businesses, which make up the majority of the business activity here in DC: the neighborhood shops with a handful of employees, the “mom and pops,” the sole proprietors. Too many council members talked as if a few hundred dollars here and there won’t matter. They should have listened more carefully to the impassioned and eloquent comments by At-large Councilmember David Catania who grew up knowing what it is to be part of a family that owns a small business and struggles to keep it going through thick and thin and the effect on them when suddenly confronted with expenses imposed from beyond their control, especially during hard economic times.

Granted, for the smallest businesses, it’s only a handful of days per employee. But the council members lost sight of the fact that laying out a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred there quickly adds up to real money — money they are not likely to have sitting unallocated in the till.

Some council members sounded as if there is no problem, citing the unexpected surpluses which the DC government presently has in its coffers — and which we are certain will be squandered, leaving no reserves for when suddenly the tax revenues dwindle. But to cite DC surpluses as somehow being the same as saying the small businesses will be able to afford this is ridiculous. Those surpluses are DC’s and have nothing to do with what’s in the shopkeeper’s till.

But, if DC has all that money sloshing around and many of the council members are apparently eager to spend it, then why not subsidize the small business owners who will now be required to provide the sick days that they will not be able to afford to provide unless they lay off one or two employees (which would not be good for the overall picture, would it?).

What we heard was that this bill is necessary to protect workers from being fired outright if they take off when ill, even if they are not being paid. Well, we agree that businesspeople who fire workers who don’t come in if they are genuinely ill is very bad. So, then, why not enact a requirement that says such action will not be allowed and will subject the businesses that do that to fines — maybe even to the loss of their business licenses. Regulate the bad behavior of a business owner who outright fires workers simply because they are too ill to come into work. Surely this would be a way to address that problem without imposing new costs at the very moment when businesses are already seeing a decline in revenue, and worse is expected to come.

This is not the time to engage in this kind of social engineering that imposes new costs on businesses.

Another aspect of this new requirement is that it also covers employees who live outside of the city — the same people who are happy enough not to have their DC wages subject to DC income tax, the same people who make sure their Virginia and Maryland U.S. Representatives and Senators do everything in their power to thwart DC from enacting a commuter tax as is the right of very other jurisdiction similarly situated. This is just another example of DC taxpayers subsidizing the lives of the non-residents. And who pays the most taxes that generate the dollars that are used for services that benefit out-of-staters every day? Business taxpayers! Councilmember Barry saw nothing wrong with this; he exclaimed that they are human also!

Problem with all this fuzzy thinking is that it’s just that — fuzzy. If public policy truly demands that workers get paid sick leave then there should be a government program put into place to assist in making this possible. Maybe there would have even been more money to do this if we hadn’t been squandering it on subsiding major league baseball which, as it now appears, is inclined to take its business out of the city anyway. And, what’s next, yet another stadium, this time for Dan Snyder? Let him finance his own — he’s got more money in his till than all the mom and pop neighborhood stores in DC.