Monica Yant Kinney: Bucks millionaire pushing Congress to help create jobs

When I last wrote about Gene Epstein, the indefatigable Bucks County millionaire was giving away his money to put strangers to work.

Eighteen months, $250,000, and a reported 100,000 hires later, the crusading job creator is infecting Congress with his economic energy. Epstein drives a Bentley and winters in Vero Beach, Fla., but spends his days un-showered at his computer with a phone to his ear, relentlessly pitching Hire Just One: a plan to transfer unemployment funds to employers as payroll subsidies for expanding their staff.

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Gene Epstein spends his days with a phone to his ear, relentlessly pitching Hire Just One: a plan to transfer unemployment funds to employers as payroll subsidies for expanding their staff. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press, file

"What good is a tax credit," he asks, when businesses aren't sure if they'll make it through the year? "With my program, the unemployment check gets assigned to the business, so if they're paying someone $800 a week, it will only cost them $400."

Through sheer will - i.e., nonstop nagging - the retired auto dealer persuaded area U.S. Reps. Allyson Y. Schwartz and Jim Gerlach to draft a bipartisan bill that is now under review by analysts at the House Ways and Means Committee.

It should be noted that Epstein has never given either pol a penny. He's not even their constituent.

"He's very persistent," notes Gerlach, a Chester County Republican on the committee where the jobs bill could take flight. "That's how good policy gets done."

"It's a good idea at its core," adds Schwartz's spokeswoman, Tali Caiazza. "We're trying to make sure it gets done the right way."

Now, if only the anxious exec could pause to realize that he's already come further than most.

"What really is amazing," Epstein now sees, "is the difficulty in getting something so basic through Congress expeditiously."

 

No time to waste

If everything about Epstein feels urgent, it's because the Newtown man is 72, suffers from blocked arteries, and frets endlessly about the lasting psychic and economic toll of this epic recession. He retired in his 30s and has spent his time and money since trying to do good while speaking bluntly.

"I threw Donald Trump off my yacht," Epstein regales. "I told him I thought he was a low-class creep."

The first phase of Hire Just One began in 2010 when Epstein pledged $1,000 to charity for employers creating up to 250 new small-business jobs. He made the network news, and across America bosses like Phil Chant used the nudge to make strategic decisions.

Chant Engineering, a firm of fewer than 50 people in New Britain, hired nine new workers. The woman who answers the phone when I call says she was one of them. She's just landed a promotion to sales and is being replaced by another formerly out-of-work receptionist.

"Back then, we were reluctant and Gene's idea got us to take the risk," Chant confirms. "Manufacturing's on fire again. We can't keep up. We need two more engineers."

Chant knew nothing of Epstein's latest idea to spur more than a million new hires, but as a manager looking to limit costs while boosting productivity, he likes what he hears.

"That's a great idea," the engineering-firm owner concludes. "It's almost too commonsense."

 

In good company

Epstein's plan (www.hirejustone.org) is not entirely novel. Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci's proposal to give states tools to reform unemployment - including using a portion of jobless benefits to subsidize new hires - just became law through the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.

In Chester County, Joseph's People cofounder Cheryl Spaulding has talked with state legislators and Gerlach's staff about a measure like Epstein's, but with a twist.

"I believe strongly the way to get people employed is not to give [the unemployment voucher] to the employer, but to the employee," says Spaulding, whose nonprofit works with 1,400 out-of-work suburbanites. "Small-business owners do not like government and don't want to sign up for any program."

I suggest Spaulding and Epstein need to meet and work together for the unemployed. Because as Epstein tells anyone who listens, "I can't take bull - and I don't give two damns who gets the credit. I just want to see the jobs."

 


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.