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Some not-so-decent replies, on principle

I never had any idea that decency was so controversial.

Two weeks ago we published a story about the Decency Principles, a national program in which consumers try to patronize businesses that pay their employees a fair wage and help provide access to adequate health and child care and perhaps even housing.

I figured everybody would see that treating employees with decency and fairness was a basic tenet for being a good business person as well as a good human being.

Then the letters and calls started coming in, calling me everything from a socialist to a naive, soft-headed, goody-two-shoes. My favorite was "cigar chomping" and "stogie sucking." (No doubt a reference to a story I wrote about smoking my first cigar.) This reader also said that I had a "Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm attitude."

About a dozen positive calls went to Jim Welch, a local proponent of the Decency Principles, whose phone number was in the article.

But the negative ones came to me. Apparently I committed heresy in the religion of capitalism. The thought that consumers might actually band together and check into the practices of businesses they patronize seemed to terrorize some small-business owners.

Some writers said that they couldn't afford to pay their workers better or buy themselves health insurance, much less employees. That they would have to raise prices if they increased wages and that would kill their business.

They also said that, since they were taking the risks by starting the business, they should reap the rewards.

I can sympathize. I know there are many obstacles to succeeding in small business _ from trouble getting loans to excessive government paperwork.

And I agree that business founders deserve a larger share of the profits. At the same time, chances are they didn't succeed on their own _ their employees had a hand in it.

Of course, one businessman wrote that his employees don't deserve to be treated well. He assured me that he treats them well, but he is lucky to get a half-hour of work from them each day.

I know that it's tough to find good help, that there are lousy employees out there who steal time and even goods. Get rid of them. Hire good ones, then treat them decently and see if they don't give you the most they can.

I know providing employees with benefits such as health insurance can be impossibly expensive. But working to find the best group rate possible and offering them that might not be.

Providing on-site day care also can be prohibitively expensive and fraught with liabilities. But giving employees the freedom to alter their schedules slightly to meet child-care needs can cost an employer nothing.

The Decency Principles are not about hard-and-fast rules mandating exactly what employers must do for their workers. They are simply about doing the best you can for employees who do the most they can for you and trying to see things from their perspective.

If saying that makes me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, well, so be it. You can call me Becky. But let it be known, I gave up cigar smoking seven months ago.

_ Write to workplace reporter Teresa Burney at 1000 N Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602, or at by electronic mail.