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At Last, Revenge on Those Who Make Us Sit and Wait

<i> Bill Lockyer is a Democratic state senator who represents southern Alameda County</i>

No one ever claimed that life isn’t full of aggravations. A large part of successfully maintaining your peace of mind--and your sanity--is a keen sense of knowing when to grin and bear it and when to fight back.

There is a media campaign loose on the airwaves these days in which a bank advertises its commitment to service through vignettes of the “good old days” when grocers and service stations went out of their way to provide personal attention to customers. For anyone under 30, these examples of simple courtesy must sound like a page from “Beowulf.” Attention and courtesy in a business has become ancient history in too many cases. And therein lies a major source of modern aggravation.

If your car payment is a few days late, you will be bombarded with computerized telephone messages culminating with a snarly demand to deliver the check personally--immediately. But if your dealer takes your car in for repair and it can’t be finished because a vital part must be found in a warehouse overseas and shipped here, you may be walking for weeks. If your bank account is overdrawn, you will pay dearly and may receive a pious letter informing you of the importance of addition and subtraction. But a deposit on your part might be held for days on end until your sister’s check clears--from the bank next door. The appliance repair outfit may demand that you be at home when their service representative is ready for you, and you’re still staring out the window while the sun goes down on a day lost.

These aggravations may be merely symptoms of a general loss of gentility in this society. Surely, such a loss is occurring. But these aggravations are more ominously a sign that the even hand of the marketplace has tilted significantly. Caught in a depersonalized world of computers, lost in a forest of corporate monoliths, the consumer is increasingly at the mercy of the vendor. The vendors set the rules. And when every vendor sets the same rules, there’s precious little opportunity to take one’s business elsewhere.

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I’ve never been a hell-bent advocate of government regulation. I realize that state interference in private enterprise can lead to immeasurable woe. But once in a while the government must at least threaten to plunk its fat finger on the scales on behalf of the little guy. Take the case of the delinquent deliveryman. Everyone knows that bad things happen--trucks break down, trucks get lost, traffic bogs down, bookings get misplaced. Consumers have been more than kind in accommodating these realities since they do need the delivery. But some businesses don’t seem to realize the scope of inconvenience that this causes the consumer--a loss of pay, a missed opportunity, a change of plans affecting several other people. The consumer’s time is irrelevant. The person paying for the “service” is at the beck and call of the server.

I’ve proposed a modest piece of legislation that might gain the consumer a little respect. It would require businesses to specify a two-hour “window” during which they will appear at a home, if the presence of the consumer is necessary. If they do not appear, and the reason isn’t something beyond their control, or if they fail to call and notify the consumer about the delay, the consumer would be permitted to file against them in small claims court for up to $500 in lost wages or economic damages. It seems fair to me.

Is it fair to business? The screams are deafening. Company after company has written to lament its economic ruin if this measure passes. Fantastic tales of skyrocketing prices, of trebled and quintupled payrolls rain down every time the bill is mentioned in the press. Such dire consequences arising from the threat of an occasional small-claims action!

I don’t deny the business community its right to gripe. It’s a free country, after all. But I would hope that consumers who’ve wasted their time awaiting the errant house call will find some merit in this bill and come forth in support. Whether it ultimately passes or fails, it’s time the business community realizes that public patience with consumer abuse has reached its end. If business then chooses to clean up its act without governmental interference, so much the better.

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