Banking the coals

The long and rough recession and its lingering aftermath have taken a toll on Pennsylvania's unemployment trust fund, now insolvent. The state owes the federal government $3.8 billion and counting as it continues to borrow money to pay out employment benefits to the state's jobless. Obviously, the fund can't go on being broke, so a fix is needed and Pennsylvania's legislators are working on it this week. Tucked away in the bill, which accomplishes much of the fixing by making fewer people eligible for benefits, is a provision that seeks to reduce the drain on the system by making fewer people unemployed period.

It's not a job creation measure -- those have dubious success anyway. It's a job retention approach. What if, instead of a company laying off a small group of people, it temporarily reduced hours of a larger group, moving them into part-time status? The unemployment fund would be able to help those workers make ends meet by providing a smaller benefit.

It's not ideal, obviously. No one wants to earn less money, obviously. But it's an interesting concept for society at large and one worth exploring.

When someone loses a job, there is more lost than that one person's income. Also lost is an investment in that person made by society and by the person's company. The money the company put into training, into retention, into recruitment is all thrown out. The skills that the company needed are now not available. Society too loses, because the person who is unemployed is now now using his skills to their highest level. If they take a make-do job at a lower level of pay or skill, the money spent on college, or advanced training may be wasted. And, as I've reported over and over again, when these people lose their way, they may never recover. Their spending power is reduced (bad for the economy) and the future of their children is curtailed (bad for the nation's future too). 

When things improve, the company needs to scramble to fill openings, at a cost to them that would not have been necessary if the employee could have stayed on, even in a more limited capacity. Meanwhile, that person's talents and skills would have remained sharp and fresh and the company would have the flexibility to increase hours as the economy improves.

Looking at the measure, I can see the possible problems, but I can also see the benefits. I particularly like one provision that allows benefits to remain intact. That would be a lifesaver for so many families.

In our nation's early days, pioneers became very adept at banking the fires in their stoves or fireplaces. They learned how to preserve a few burning coals through the dark of the night, enough to rekindle their cooking fires in the morning. It was so much easier to rekindle a fire from a few warm coals than to struggle to light a new flame.