Our nonprofit association helps employers understand and comply with employment laws. We talk with lawmakers about workplace realities and the unintended consequences of well-intended rules. Employers understand the lawmaking process is chaotic and bears little relationship to a high school textbook on government. Still, the cumulative impact of thousands of laws and rules is a crushing burden to smaller employers.
Putting out a fire. State legislators are good firefighters, much better than Congress. Show them a problem nearing the point of no return, and they will act. Workplace examples include workers’ compensation reform and unemployment insurance overhaul. Both became so unaffordable and unsustainable, difficult changes were made under Democratic and Republican leadership. True, if acted on sooner, the reforms could be gentler, but it is just not the nature of the legislative beast.
Solving the real problem. Many thoughtful legislators work hard to draft a solution to a significant, complex issue only to see additions or deletions gut the original intent. Sometimes, just the title from the original bill remains while the final text avoids those issues or addresses new ones entirely. When we ask human resource leaders to speak to committees about workplace bills, employers are surprised at this incongruence. “What problem is the bill now solving?” and “What problem is the bill now creating?” highlight the squirrely journey from concept to reality, or on to legislative oblivion.
Protecting an industry. State law contains many specific protections sought and maintained through smart lobbying. Tobacco companies won the “Lawful Use of Lawful Products” statute years ago to prevent employers and others from turning no-smoking rules into no-smokers rules. “Lawful products” were protected rather than the less-sympathetic cigarette. Lobbyists seek statutory licensing requirements for all-manner of trades and vocations with part of an eye on consumer-protection but both feet planted in competition-reduction: private investigators, cosmetic artists, nutritionists, massage therapists and lawn irrigationists are examples. North Carolina has over 100 tightly restricted trades, one of the highest numbers in the nation.
Pet peeves. More often than we realize, a lawmaker’s idea for a bill is based on a single anecdote. A contractor in a lawmaker’s district did not get paid by a homeowner, so a bill was introduced to require paycheck deductions to repay all types of consumer debts. Imagine every employer withholding payroll dollars on past due credit card bills statewide, all because this one contractor was not paid? The bill failed, but each session brings a rash of next-door-neighbor bills and some do become law.
For these reasons and more, on balance, new laws tend to have more unintended than intended consequences. Some of those unintended consequences are good depending on your perspective. Others cause employers and consumers expense way out of proportion to any good accomplished. There are some great people in public service. Listening more to the people regulated or restricted by new laws, rather than primarily the isolated complainer (or well-financed advocates), would lead to better legislation.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.