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State: Cut hours, not jobs

State: Cut hours, not jobs

Hanging in the warehouse of Latham International are banners proclaiming the manufacturer’s annual c

Hanging in the warehouse of Latham International are banners proclaiming the manufacturer’s annual corporate objectives. The 2007 banner includes goals such as “Strengthen customer brand” and “Implement operational excellence” while 2008’s banner states “Increase appetite (grow sales).”

No banner hangs for 2009. As the economy staggers, catchy motivational slogans are overshadowed by basic survival. And Latham International plans to achieve that objective with the help of a little-known state program that encourages employers to reduce workers’ hours rather than lay them off.

For four years, Latham International has participated in the state Department of Labor’s Shared Work Program, which allows full-time workers to collect unemployment insurance benefits that cover wages lost to reduced hours. After seeing New York’s unemployment rate jump to 7 percent in December, Labor Department Commissioner M. Patricia Smith begged business owners statewide to participate in the Shared Work Program rather than pursue layoffs.

“You can stay in business. You can keep your workers. You can weather this storm,” Smith said at a Wednesday news conference at the manufacturer’s Latham headquarters.

Smith called the program her agency’s “best kept secret,” but “we don’t want it to be a secret anymore.” Along with the nation’s 14-month-old recession, awareness about the program has spread.

Last year, 546 New York employers participated in Shared Work, 83 percent more than in 2007. In the first five weeks of this year, 132 businesses have signed up.

Workers facing reduced hours are eligible for up to 40 weeks of Shared Work benefits under a current federal extended benefit plan.

In the Capital Region, 18,409 employees were enrolled in Shared Work last year, up 61.6 percent from 2007. By December, the region’s unemployment rate was at 5.9 percent — its highest for that month since 1991.

Latham International has 100 employees enrolled in the program, though only approximately 30 are currently collecting unemployment insurance benefits. The manufacturer of swimming pool covers employs 340, with 140 of them at the Scotia-Glenville Industrial Park.

Because of the seasonal nature of its business, Latham International relies on Shared Work to retain skilled employees during slow periods.

New York is one of 17 states to have such a program, and if it were not for Shared Work, Latham International would likely have laid off up to 150 workers over the past four years, 40 this year alone, the company reported.

“Everybody wins in a way that’s much better than if they’re put out on the street,” said Albany County Executive Michael Breslin.

Businesses that participate in Shared Work must have at least five full-time employees who work 35 to 40 hours weekly.

For workers to receive unemployment benefits, employers must reduce their hours by 20 percent to 60 percent. Affected workers must retain their health insurance, vacation and other employer-sponsored benefits.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Smith invoked President Obama’s Jan. 20 inaugural address, in which he praised “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job.”

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