One of the old cliches of the businessman-turned-politician on hustings is that he or she “has met a payroll” and is therefore more prepared for the tax challenges of an organization than the pale, dumb , permanently elected opponent there .
And you know what? This is one of those truisms that is really true.
Meeting a payroll has certainly changed my view of how the world really works.
I was 28, a year after graduating from higher education with a degree in international management, and I suddenly found myself the entrepreneur of a start-up.
A weekly journal, if you must know. Terrible thing to start. Even then, while it wasn’t completely crazy to imagine that one could make money dodging printing, there were only two categories of start-ups to which the Small Business Administration had an absolute rule against the lending of money: restaurants and newspapers.
Much diminished, sold four or five times over the decades, the thing still exists, so I guess it wasn’t completely crazy to start it. Many bi-weekly payrolls encountered during these years.
I started working a few weeks after the creation of the company. Quickly discovered, for example, that if paychecks were indeed being paid to a few dozen employees, the other founders had neglected to tell the IRS and that no income tax was being withheld from those checks. Little things like that. I had to go hat (and company checkbook) in hand to talk to the disgruntled feds and make amends.
We had to have over $20,000 in the bank every second Friday to meet the payroll. Our cash flow was an order of magnitude less than that. The previous Wednesday, I would report our predicament to the principal owner.
“Where are you going to find the money?” he would ask.
“No idea, boss.”
“Making collection calls to our advertisers?”
“Do the trick, but that won’t cover everything.”
Then he would have to write a last minute check for us to be cured.
Yet we were often on the edge of the abyss. In the past, paychecks were just things I took to the bank to deposit. But it occurred to me that if I didn’t cash my own check, those few hundred dollars would still be available to help pay the rent. More times than I could really afford, I waited weeks to cash my own check. You do what you have to do.
I lasted a year in this job before returning to journalism. But I never forgot this lesson: that paychecks don’t grow on trees. That businesses big and small can lose money just as they can make money. That it is something precarious, to be a job creator.
So to this day, as progressive as some of my other views are, every time I see a politician about to pass a law that regulates how a business operates, I try to imagine how it’s really going function.
And, having “encountered” a payroll, when I hear of new proposals – one California-wide, one nationwide – to change the workweek from the old 40-hour to a new generation 32-hour – I am naturally skeptical.
It is very simple. Many employees will continue to work 40 hours or more. But, according to these proposals, companies will have to pay overtime for this fifth day of work rather than for a sixth and a seventh.
Some of these big, big companies will definitely be able to “afford” the change. Certainly, in the past, government-mandated changes in the private workplace have been beneficial and even necessary for workers. But that’s not true, as some proponents of the 32-hour week claim, that 40 hours has been the norm “since the industrial revolution.” In the middle of the 19th century, and even in the 20th century, it was common to work six days a week, not five. Social Security, minimum wage, workplace safety standards after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in which 146 people died in Manhattan – all of these were crucial steps, brokered by politicians, far from the bad old days .
But right now — as people return to work, inflation soars, companies face vexing supply chain issues — it’s just not the time to force them paying everyone overtime all day every Friday.
This is a payroll that I could not respect.
Larry Wilson is a member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group. [email protected].