I once worked with a guy who showed a wry sense of humor. Where other office desks identified their occupants with uniform badges bearing their names, his emblem was both boastful and bashful.
It read, “Valued Employee.”
I’d bet his paycheck didn’t support the claim.
Some people may measure their worth in job promotions or the personal satisfaction of tasks well done. But for the rest, the yardstick is what covers the rent, pays for the groceries and keeps the kids in shoes — U.S. currency, good for all debts, public and private.
Self-fulfillment gurus be damned. We’re in it for the money. And we’re getting shortchanged, mostly by design rather than accident.
Where government could help, it too often hinders. It has cleared the path to industry consolidations with slipshod antitrust enforcement. The average size of U.S. public companies tripled in the last 20 years, giving employers the upper hand over labor. Agencies and courts that once gave room for unions to take root and grow are now more likely to undermine the power — and voice — of labor. Technology compels workers to increase their skills, but programs to aid them remain miserly. And those who pay their own way through college or trade schools often end up with debts that loom for decades.
President Donald Trump bloviates about incomparable tax cuts, record stock prices, unsurpassed corporate profits and unprecedented employment. Wage increases? Well, workers will have to make do. Corporate America earmarked $437 billion of its tax savings to stock buybacks. (Congratulations, again, to the well-heeled.) The money shoveled into stock buybacks came to 37 times what workers got in one-time bonuses and wage hikes. (Enjoy your crumbs, wage slaves.)
Indeed, some economists don’t see a problem in wage stagnation. Their advice: Measure “total compensation,” not paychecks. What about the value a worker gets from paid vacation, sick pay, pensions and health insurance?
Yeah, what about it? Corporate America has been shedding traditional pension plans faster than a parakeet molting feathers. In their place: nothing. Or 401(k) plans that shift all the risk to employees. Many companies now deduct sick pay from vacation time. Paring vacation days also has been a handy way to cut costs.
Every year, revised company health plans present employees with higher deductibles, copays and premiums. Health benefits as a share of labor costs have been falling since 2014. Workers are picking up the tab.
Want to know where wages have gone? Nowhere.
Wait. That’s not true.
In the last year, the average hourly earnings of production workers have gone down, down, down, after adjusting for inflation. Odd outcome for blue-collar workers in the age of Trump, the “Only I Can Fix It” president.
For all wage and salary workers, wages didn’t keep up with historically low rates of inflation. Pay fell for five years after the Great Recession ended. Only since 2016 has pay inched, crept, crawled slightly ahead of consumer prices.
In contrast, U.S. corporate after-tax profits began to rebound in the second quarter of 2009, fueling one of the longest bull markets in Wall Street history.
What a marvelous economy we’re enjoying — except for millions who depend on paychecks rather than trust funds, stock portfolios and income tax giveaways big enough to buy a new Mercedes or two.
A confluence of forces converges to keep the working stiff running in place even as owners of capital prosper.
Educational disparities, changing technology and the diminishing power of unions are high on the list. Globalization deserves blame, but not as much as wrongheaded tariff enthusiasts claim.
The gap between pay for high school grads and workers with college or advanced degrees never has been wider. The U.S. Labor Department last year reported high school dropouts had median weekly paychecks of $488 — 26 percent less than high school grads made. Workers with bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees made $1,193.
People who once didn’t get jobs because of inadequate education now don’t get interviews.
Before I was born, my mother answered a “Help Wanted” advertisement for what promised to be a well-paying, intriguing job. Joseph Pulitzer II, like his famous father before him, was losing his eyesight and the former publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was searching for someone to read to him.
The ad failed to mention that Pulitzer wanted applicants to have a college degree — a qualification that ruled out my mom but at the time also would have eliminated half the radio announcers, actors and TV hosts in the nation.
That was more than 60 years ago. Employers have since refined the dark art of screening applicants, raising hurdles in unexpected places. Hotels hiring desk clerks with degrees in “hospitality services.” Family restaurants looking for cooks with culinary degrees. Secretaries — now called “executive assistants” — finding that a sheepskin in art or literature got them an interview even if it didn’t help them do their jobs.
Where are the government programs to keep kids in high school and encourage college enrollment? Good luck finding them. They’re small, scattershot and usually painfully underfinanced.
More Americans than ever are getting higher education, but a closer look at the numbers isn’t encouraging. At last count, in 2016, more than four in 10 white workers had at least a bachelor’s degree, as did 60 percent of Asians. But other minorities? Just 28 percent of blacks and 20 percent of Hispanics had such degrees.
It doesn’t take special skills to mow a lawn or trim a hedge, but landscapers these days carry computers to show customers how their lawns would look with a few upgrades. Carpenters don’t just build cabinets, they use laptops to draw pictures of proposed changes to kitchens. Computer aversion is a recipe for a dead-end job — or no job at all.
Some barriers to pay advancement are subtler. Recent research, co-authored by University of Minnesota economist Fatih Guvenen, suggests companies increasingly segregate workers by skills.
An accountant or human resources specialist once might have joined a firm and climbed the ranks to a top executive position. But firms increasingly hire outside consultants to keep the books or run HR. Being locked in consulting firms where everyone has similar skills leaves precious little room for advancement — and puts a lid on pay increases.
The decline of labor unions also drives sluggish wage gains.
Unions represent only about 10 percent of U.S. workers, barely more than half the share of 1983. Feeble enforcement of labor laws has helped companies fight off unionization efforts. Court cases, past and pending, threaten to undermine the abilities of unions to lobby Congress or support labor-friendly candidates.
True, efforts to counteract corporate power have emerged in recent years. Witness the push for a “living wage” for low-income workers who struggle to pay for necessities.
Or calls for an end to “no compete” clauses that bar even short-order cooks from moving to new employers promising higher pay.
Against the backdrop of the many flaws in education policy and labor laws, take note: Trump recently announced a plan to merge the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor. For “merge,” read “diminish.”
The two departments don’t have much in common except for one thing: Their missions are to improve the lot of Americans in an evermore competitive world. Ideally, to help the “have-nots” join the “haves.”
Enter another Trump innovation: trade war. While foreign competition has cost American jobs in recent decades, “globalization” — integrating supply chains and product manufacturing across borders — has fostered job security for many U.S. workers.
Blocking trade with tariffs surely will kill more jobs than it creates. And, if history is any guide, even U.S. companies that count themselves as “winners” won’t be sharing much of the rewards with workers.
In a nation that now has more job openings than job applicants, economists have been waiting to see companies pay higher wages. And waiting. And waiting.
The 2018 elections would be the time to vote for candidates likely to support, rather than undermine, equal-opportunity education and pro-labor policies.
In the meantime, sociologists have been counseling companies that the path to luring and keeping workers is increasing job satisfaction and ratcheting up employee praise. You know, label each and every one a “Valued Employee.”
An editor at a newspaper where I once worked strolled over to a reporter and loudly proclaimed, “Quality work this morning!” To which the writer brashly replied, “How about some quality pay?”
Mike Meyers is a Minneapolis writer and former business reporter for the Star Tribune.