Recently, when my firm completed a study that found about ten thousand companies left California in the last eight years, it hardly surprised leaders in the business community.
Some say there is one thing in California worse than taxes – and that is the complex set of directives enforced by unforgiving state inspectors. In fact, many business owners consider the state’s regulatory environment to be worse than its notorious tax burden.
California’s political elite and their regulatory enforcers don’t understand that business owners enjoy running their enterprises and virtually all of them try to do the right thing. One example can be found in Kallisto Greenhouses, which closed in Fontana in response to Sacramento stinging them from many directions like a group of killer bees.
Suffocating a Nursery
Even a non-polluting, greenhouse-gas reducing, job-creating, tax-paying, greenhouse run by good employers can’t escape the punishing regulatory noose.
Kallisto Greenhouses operated with a peak of 36 employees shipping tropical indoor plants to ten western states and Calgary Canada since 1977. But the owners padlocked the doors because of actions by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and California’s Occupational Safety and Health office (Cal-OSHA).
CARB required heaters that underperformed despite costing tens of thousands of dollars and also insisted that their truck – which almost certainly would be legal in most states – be replaced by a new vehicle with an unaffordable price tag.
“Contributing factors included the ripple effect of an increase in the minimum wage and addition of paid sick leave,” said Kathye Rietkerk, co-owner. “But the nail in the coffin was Cal-OSHA. We got a letter saying we had the choice to invite in a visit by a Cal-OSHA consultant to review employee manuals or take the chance of being visited by an inspector.”
Naturally, the company opted for help from the state’s consultant. Upon his arrival he noted that a numerical calculation on a certain OSHA form was in the wrong column, which resulted in a $5,000 fine. Not that the number was incorrect. Only that it was in the wrong place on the form.
By the time he was done, the fines he felt he could assess had he visited not as a consultant but as an “inspector” would have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for similar mistakes.
“Also, the corrections to procedures and existing manuals were deemed not exact enough to suit the Cal-OSHA consultant, so it took six months of staff time to satisfy him.” she said. “They wanted us to be rigorous on things that aren’t that important.”
For example, the agency wanted a requirement that mandatory disciplinary proceedings be initiated for certain employee mistakes even if the employer doesn’t want to treat long-term employees that way.
“To be forced to be inflexible makes you an adversary to your employees, and we should be allowed to determine when discipline makes sense and when it does not,” Rietkerk said. I contacted workplace expert Tom Martin of People Management Professionals in Riverside, Calif., who confirmed her viewpoint that Cal-OSHA indeed makes inflexible “one size fits all” demands.
Company Hit Hard
Meanwhile, the company’s operating costs kept increasing as water bills rose despite having installed $300,000 in sophisticated water-saving technology, health insurance prices went up, electricity became more expensive, and taxes continued to climb.
“The day after the OSHA consultant left we called the developers who had been seeking to buy our property for yet another distribution warehouse to serve ‘products imported from abroad,'” Rietkerk said. The company owned ten acres, six of which were covered by 257,000 square feet of greenhouses.
Kallisto Greenhouses had loyal employees (76 percent with more than 20 years of service) and offered health insurance since the early 1980’s, three weeks vacation to long-term employees, seven paid holidays and flexible working conditions.
“We were forced to make decisions we never dreamed of because of the incredibly hostile small business environment in California,” she said. “It is sad that government programs that are ideally intended to protect employees can result in complete job loss instead.”
“We got into business because it was enjoyable and we loved producing a product that enhanced people’s lives. People who create jobs are not ‘the enemy’ and we were grateful to have choices when the onslaught of regulations made the choice of closing more attractive,” Rietkerk said.
It appears that the majority of California legislators, Gov. Jerry Brown’s “jobs czar” Michael Rossi, and state bureaucrats are just fine with ignoring the hardships the state imposed on Kallisto Greenhouses and continues to inflict on other businesses.
Hold the State Accountable
It’s time we make life uncomfortable for state inspectors who have been allowed to remain anonymous while inflicting unreasonable demands on entrepreneurs.
I have such a way – it’s called accountability.
Let’s begin requiring that California regulatory agencies publish online the names of inspectors every time a business shuts down or leaves the state because they decided there was a regulatory “failure.” The inspector would be free to list the details of infractions, but, in the same posting, an option should be available for the company’s leadership to tell their side of the story.
Doing so would help journalists and the public better understand how harsh treatment by public agencies motivates companies to transfer jobs and capital to other states or close their doors.
California needs such disclosures because the majority of voters are ill-informed about what it takes to run a successful enterprise. Such voters elect majorities of business-bashing politicians to the state legislature and to city councils in liberal strongholds like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Consider the popularity of Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders, a fierce socialist who attracted a huge crowd in San Diego on Tuesday. It seems that the ranks of voters antagonistic toward business are expanding.
If we fail to expose how California politicians and their regulatory armies treat companies, the proverbial man in the street will continue to be unaware of the pain that leaders of commercial enterprises have to endure.
An Astonishing Contrast
Many California Democrats represent a Jekyll-and-Hyde disorder by being contemptuous toward business interests while coddling state agencies that are guilty of far worse behavior.
For example, legislators recently blocked the State Auditor from examining financial mismanagement at the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA); they did that after eliminating the rail agency’s obligation to report twice yearly on a project likely to cost in excess of 100 billion. Now, the CHSRA must report only once every two years despite evidence of serious cost overruns, dubious changes in plans and multiple statements that lack credibility.
Members of the Authority’s board ignore the stipulations contained in Proposition 1A, which voters passed into law in the 2008 election. California propositions that pass at the ballot box become law, and that high-speed rail law is being violated in so many ways that the list is too long to publish here.
Can you imagine the outcry if Kallisto Greenhouses had copycatted the High Speed Rail Authority by demanding elimination of audits by the California Franchise Tax Board or the Internal Revenue Service? Or obfuscated details in documents required by state law?
The double standard in the way California treats businesses and public agencies is enough to turn the stomach of any business owner. Without more voters becoming concerned, we will continue to see company relocations to friendlier states, or – as in the case of Kallisto Greenhouses – simply go out of business.