This open letter is based on an interview I conducted with a contractor who's desperately trying to keep his head above water. He isn't named for obvious reasons.
Dear President Obama,
If you want to help small businessmen like you said in your jobs plan, it's simple: Stop trying to help us.
I'm a contractor; I build things. I'm lucky to make half of what I did three years ago. I've been in it for some 27 years. I've seen friends and competitors vanish. But if you think that tax credit will pull us out of our troubles, you're wrong.
You act like we don't want to hire anyone, so we have to be bribed with a tax credit or something. Truth is, I'd love to hire someone — to fill a need.
See, the problem isn't just the recession; the problem has been going on for a long time, and it's getting worse. It's the endless procession of government scrutinizers and their rigid fixation on the rules and regulations that are holding us back. And before you dismiss this as just some right-wing, hate-Obama rant, consider some of the realities of running a small business.
I've had an impeccable record with my truck and equipment drivers, but I just got fined $14,000 for paperwork violations. See, every time my driver gets into the cab, he has to fill out a form saying that he's done the proper safety checks. My guys always check; we've trained them for that. But the Department of Transportation inspectors came in and what they're not looking at is our safety record, but our safety records. Are all the forms exactly right? Find some problem with the forms, and we get fined. The forms count more than the safety record itself.
I had the same driver for 17 years, and we got fined for not having a proper pre-hire application on file on him — even though the form didn't exist back then. OK, I said, I'll fill out the form. "Can't do that," they said. I had to fire the guy and then rehire him so that the form would be "proper."
Four years ago, I bought a rubber-tire backhoe, standard equipment, $60,000 new. It was time to sell it and buy a new one. The dealer said it now was $90,000. I told him there's a recession going on. He explained: "It complies with all the latest air-quality standards." This is when I haven't seen a puff of smoke coming out of the old one.
Mr. President, I didn't buy the new one; couldn't afford it. That's one less backhoe, sold by an American dealer and made by an American manufacturer. Don't you see what's holding us back?
I qualify as a drug-free workplace; get a special rate on workers' comp. But someone got bumped by a swinging backhoe bucket, not real serious. Any time there's an accident, we have to sample everyone's urine. Turns out the injured guy failed the test. It gets complicated; he's bollixed my workers' comp deal, and now he's suing me. But I can't fire him. More rules.
I've got more stories, just like these — things that stifle growth and hiring. It's not just the feds, you understand. State and local regulators, special districts, environmental officials — they're crawling all over the place, always checking the forms. They're on a real tear. They think they're saving the world. If they want to fine me, believe me, they'll find a way.
Truth is that no way could I start this business today. It's not because of the recession. To comply with all regs and inspections required today, you wouldn't have enough time and money to start this same business. I'm supposed to be a construction contractor. But I don't feel like one anymore. I have to spend my time being an attorney, an insurance broker, an accountant, although I'm none on those, enforcing a bunch of regs someone that doesn't know the business wrote.
Look, we'll eventually recover, even with all the regulations that try to remake our business. That's what we do. But don't feel like you must ride to our rescue. Just leave us alone. Please.
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Here are some comments that appeared there.