Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Autumn 2009 has been like no other I’ve experienced, with another round of layoffs in my company and the supposed sale of one division (of which I am a member). It’s difficult to feel good about having a job when so many around you are losing theirs. This year’s layoffs come, as usual, right before the holidays, but rather than happen in one fell swoop, they’ve been executed in dribs and drabs. One day you think you’re safe, the next you get the axe.

The past few weeks have darkened my view of the world and turned me off to many aspects of the American way of business. Here are 5 hard facts I’d like to see changed in this country.

1: Employers feel little impetus for full disclosure (aka honesty)

In 2009, employees at my company had our salaries cut approximately 5% and saw employer contributions to 401K plans dry up completely. Then an email from the CEO went round in October informing us that this would be the case again in 2010, but that, otherwise, the company was in “good shape.” One month later, we learned that our division was being sold, that a number of employees would be laid off in the process, and that another two dozen employees of the midsized company would also lose their jobs, including several top execs.

So what was the rationale, exactly, for that “reassuring” email? With the benefit of hindsight, I would have to say that its purpose was to keep people on the job, producing the company’s products, until such time as it became expedient to let them go. If that happened to fall right before the holidays, when it is virtually impossible to find a job, so be it. That’s business!

2: There is a two-tiered system of compensation

The people who “bring in the money” get rewarded much more handsomely than the people who actually produce the product that is being sold. Because I work in publishing, that product is a magazine. The journalists, editors, and artists who gather information, reformulate it in a style appropriate for our audience, and package it so that it is easy to read get paid a regular salary. The people who sell the ads that support the magazine, if they are at all successful, get paid much more handsomely, earning a portion of the profits and, in many cases, contracts that protect them in the case of a downturn.

Supposedly, they get paid more because they make it possible for us to continue doing our jobs. But if you take away the basic product—envisioned, created, and polished by others—just what do they have to offer?

In the sale of my division, the two top sales people were excluded from the deal. That was the end of their jobs. But both had lucrative contracts that buffered them from that loss and bought them plenty of time to line up a new position. In contrast, the salaried folks who were laid off in the sale received only a basic severance package (one week’s pay for every year of service to the company).

Is that really fair? Maybe not, but that’s how it goes in business!

3: The high cost of health insurance encourages employers to lay off older workers

The younger a company’s work force, the less likely it is to develop serious illness. So, naturally, it’s cheaper to insure younger employees. Older workers tend to develop chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension—or more acute health problems such as cancer—and the cost of insuring them goes up as a result.

With the skyrocketing cost of health care, employers are motivated—more than ever before—to lay off workers “of a certain age” in order to make insurance costs more manageable. After these workers are let go, they can keep their health coverage in effect for an additional 18–24 months through COBRA. But COBRA coverage requires the worker to pay the portion of his or her premium that was previously picked up by the employer. In many cases, this extra cost renders health coverage so expensive that the worker cannot afford to keep it going.

The solution: A new job, right? Then the worker will have insurance again.

Not so fast. Prospective employers are likely to bypass older job applicants—again because of age—in favor of younger, supposedly healthier prospects. They are also continuously downsizing the overall health insurance package they offer their workers, and increasing the employee’s portion of the premium.

4: Employers feel no loyalty to their workers

It is widely accepted business practice to base hiring decisions on a company’s profitability. No profits, no new jobs. Makes sense, n’est-ce pas?

But what about the people already employed by the company? When the overall profit line flattens, does the employer have any responsibility to maintain its current workforce? In this country, the answer to that question is a resounding “No!”

I’m not talking about a loss of operating revenue, only a decline in profits. In a time of serious recession, when jobs are quickly evaporating, is it ethical to lay off workers just because profits aren’t following an ever-increasing trajectory? When an employee invests the better part of his or her creative energy in the company’s bottom line over the long term, shouldn’t the employer exhibit some loyalty in return?

In a vibrant economy, when jobs are plentiful, both employer and employed rightly act as free agents. But when a downturn hits, don’t the rules need to change? Or is the motto of the American business world best expressed as “every man [and woman] for himself”?

5: Unemployment insurances is inadequate

Let’s say that, before you were laid off, you earned $50,000 a year, with health insurance. If you live in New York City, as I do, and are single, as I am, then my first question is: How have you survived financially?

My second question: Are you ready to see your compensation more than cut in half?

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in New York State is $405—or $21,060 a year. On top of that, the benefit is subject to federal tax. And you’ll have to pay the full premium for your health insurance through COBRA, easily several hundred dollars a month. Try to survive according to this formula. (Hint: You can’t.)

New York lags behind neighboring states in its maximum allotment, which is $584 in New Jersey, $576 in Connecticut, and $628 in Massachusetts. Even at $628 a week—or just over $32,000 a year—survival is iffy. Compare that to the annual salary of a US Congress person (most of whom supplement their income in other ways), which is $174,000.

Clearly, unemployment insurance is largely a symbolic measure—meant to make you think there is a safety net, when what really awaits you is a concrete floor.

Its overall effect: to make you snap up the first job offer that comes along, whether the position makes full use of your talents, compensates you fairly, or offers health benefits or not. The game is rigged in the employer’s favor. Wonder why wages and other compensation are eroding?

It’s just business as usual.

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Nothing loosens the purse strings faster than the threat of financial oblivion. At least that’s how it was for me.

One week I found out my company was being sold. The next weekend I was shooting craps at Mohegan Sun. (Well, not actually shooting craps, but gambling nonetheless.)

Admittedly, I had already planned the trip to Connecticut—but I could have retrenched and reconsidered. Instead, there I sat, pulling the lever on the $1 slots. (I gradually worked my way down to the 25¢ machines and then to the 1/4¢ slots.) Even after my gambling companion was clearly finished with the place, I was still going strong. I could have been mistaken for one of Pavlov’s dogs, pushing a blue button and salivating every time the bell went off.

No, I did not win any money—or, rather, I lost more than I won. I had a promising streak on the poker machines, but when my friend ran out of money, I felt guilty for making her wait. The night ended at 1:30 AM, with the two of us standing at the end of a concrete walkway, waiting for our ride back to the hotel. Plenty of folks were still arriving at that hour, as car after car pulled into the valet lane. I couldn’t help but wonder how much money the casino takes in on a good night. If there is any comfort in having lost all my cash, it is knowing that the casino is owned by Native Americans. At least I’m doing my part to make amends for the white man screwing them over.

I spent the rest of the weekend lying in bed watching TV and reading. Then Sunday rolled around and it was back to reality—specifically, the certainty that the company I work for will be sold to a competitor within 10 days or so. At a meeting about the sale, employees were reassured that “most of us” would be offered the same jobs at the new company (but not necessarily at the same salary). We will then pack up the contents of our offices and cubicles and move a good distance away from our current location—adding a significant amount of time and frustration to many commutes.

The most disturbing fact gleaned from this meeting is that, should I choose not to accept a position with the new company, my severance package will equal a mere 12 weeks of pay—one week for every year I have worked. That’s three months of “security” in which to find a new job in media, line up health insurance, and recover from the trauma. Yes, I would qualify for unemployment, but at the going rate for New York State, the unemployment checks would not even allow me to pay my rent.

Reconsidered in light of these facts, my fling at Mohegan Sun doesn’t seem so crazy. With a little luck, I might have come out better after shooting craps than working 12 long years on the job.