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Editorial: Look west on scheduling rules, governor

Government is always a blunt instrument – less a scalpel than an earthquake. Even the best of its actions reverberate far beyond their intended goals and often in ways it doesn’t anticipate. But that doesn’t excuse it from anticipating.

Today, the New York State Department of Labor needs to anticipate as it considers imposing regulations on how businesses schedule their employees. As it stands, the department proposed rule, while valuable and appropriate in some contexts, is so broad that it will undermine many other businesses, especially those whose work is weather dependent.

The rule under consideration would require employers to post work schedules 14 days in advance and – here’s the kicker – pay workers up to four hours’ extra wages for last-minute scheduling changes. It’s not, in its broad outlines, an unfair idea.

When proposed last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the idea was to relieve pressure from workers at stores and restaurants, where changing schedules can collide with child care needs as well as the necessity of some employees to hold a second job. Those are real issues and the governor was right to respond to them.

But it’s an earthquake in some industries. At Delta Sonic Car Wash, for example, changing weather directly influences business and, with it, staffing needs. Not many people come to a car wash in a downpour.

Without flexibility to change schedules, the company would either have to pay the extra wages imposed by the regulation – at a cost forecast in the millions of dollars – or adopt a more automated system, eliminating jobs that for many young people are the first in their lives.

Delta Sonic already automates some of its work, said President Ronald Benderson, but it’s not the company’s goal to eliminate jobs. “We get a good payback on the robots,” he told The Buffalo News, “but it’s not where we want to be. We’d like to stay in the people business.”

So would the company’s employees, judging from the dozens of testimonials submitted by workers for whom not both the job and its scheduling flexibility are valuable. “I love being able to all into work and I hope Delta Sonic will be able to continue this method,” one college student wrote. Another worker, who began when he was a student, wrote that “Without this flexibility, I would not have been able to have received my bachelor’s degree and work full time.”

Landscapers and snowplow operators with employees could face similar threats to their businesses, but with less ability to automate. The Labor Department isn’t adequately anticipating those consequences.

Interstate competition could also be affected. At Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda, owner Bob Confer is worried that the rules would make it even more difficult for him to contend with a competitor in Tennessee. The company makes products including kayaks and pool ladders.

The good news is that alternatives exist. In Oregon, for example, a rule that is to go into effect this summer applies only to retail, hospitality and food service companies with more than 500 workers. That’s a sensible approach, and one that could be tweaked, if it leaves out too many categories of workers.

In a state that is already over-regulated, Albany must be careful not to put its thumb on the scales unnecessarily or too heavily. It’s not at all unreasonable to offer greater stability to employees whose lives may be upended by whipsaw scheduling.

But it is important, also, to protect jobs by shaping those rules in a way that focuses its impact and, in so doing, accomplished the greatest good with the least disruption. The Oregon approach seems to do that.

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