Why many em­ploy­ees feel de­val­ued in boom­ing job mar­ket

Re­search paints a pic­ture of lag­ging wages, fewer ben­e­fits


PROV­I­DENCE, R.I. — Ken White had a good job at a credit card pro­ces­sor for 22 years, but he was laid off in the Great Re­ces­sion.

To­day, at 56, White does sim­i­lar work. Yet every­thing feels different. He’s a con­trac­tor for a tech­nol­ogy ser­vices firm that as­signs him to man­age tech projects for a re­gional bank. He’s paid just two-thirds of his old salary. The bonuses and stock awards he once earned are gone.

De­spite the U.S. econ­omy’s job growth, White and oth­ers like him don’t feel like ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the long­est ex­pan­sion on record. The kinds of jobs they once en­joyed — per­ma­nent po­si­tions, with bonuses and op­por­tu­ni­ties to move up — are now rarer.

“It’s not as easy as it was,” White says.

White’s evo­lu­tion from em­ployee to con­trac­tor is em­blem­atic of a trend in the Amer­i­can work­place: The econ­omy keeps grow­ing. Un­em­ploy­ment is at a half-cen­tury low. Yet many peo­ple feel their jobs have been de­val­ued by em­ploy­ers that in­creas­ingly pri­or­i­tize share­hold­ers and cus­tomers.

Eco­nomic re­search, gov­ern­ment data and in­ter­views with work­ers sketch a pic­ture of lag­ging wages, erod­ing ben­e­fits and de­mands for em­ploy­ees to do more with­out more pay. Ex­perts say a con­flu­ence of forces are at play: glob­al­iza­tion, work­place au­to­ma­tion, a de­cline of la­bor unions, fiercer price com­pe­ti­tion and out­sourc­ing.

“We’ve made de­ci­sions and baked into the struc­ture this ex­treme in­equal­ity,” said Bar­bara Dyer of the Good Com­pa­nies, Good Jobs Ini­tia­tive at MIT’s Sloan School of


A col­lab­o­ra­tive analysis of the 2018 Gen­eral So­cial Sur­vey by The APNORC Cen­ter and GSS staff finds more peo­ple say­ing work has grown more de­mand­ing. Around one in three Amer­i­can work­ers said they face too much work to do every­thing well. About one in five held a job other than their main one. About three-quar­ters had to work ex­tra hours be­yond their usual sched­ule at least once a month. Those num­bers are up from 2006.

A Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of St. Louis analysis found cor­po­rate prof­its have far out­paced em­ployee com­pen­sa­tion since the early 2000s.

Paul Nota has worked at CVS in Mas­sachusetts since 2002 in sev­eral roles: tech­ni­cian, su­per­vi­sor, as­sis­tant man­ager. He likes CVS and still works there part time. But he’s no­ticed a change from ear­lier days, when he felt CVS “thought of the em­ployee first” — with small ap­pre­ci­a­tions like com­pany bar­be­cues.

Those ges­tures are mainly gone, he said, while the com­pany asks for more.

Nota, 32, jug­gles help­ing peo­ple in line, an­swer­ing calls and han­dling the drive-thru. He said they’ve been told they could soon be giv­ing flu shots, but notes they won’t get ex­tra pay.

“It’s all about rapid growth now,” he said. “How can you help the bot­tom line? And that way is not pay­ing your em­ploy­ees much.”

CVS spokesman Mike DeAn­ge­lis said the com­pany has made work­flows more ef­fi­cient with tools such as new phone tech­nol­ogy. CVS last year raised min­i­mum start­ing pay to $11 an hour and stepped up pay raises. DeAn­ge­lis said turnover among phar­macy tech­ni­cians has de­clined.

An­other trend that has dis­rupted life for some work­ers is when com­pa­nies out­source jobs not cen­tral to their busi­ness.

Com­pa­nies look­ing to “to get out of the messy job of em­ploy­ing peo­ple” shed jan­i­tors, se­cu­rity guards or tech sup­port, said David Weil, dean of the Heller School of So­cial Pol­icy and Man­age­ment at Bran­deis Univer­sity and a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

Weil’s 2014 book “The Fis­sured Work­place” doc­u­mented how com­pa­nies hire out­side firms to do work for­merly done in-house. Th­ese com­pa­nies hire peo­ple at lower pay with fewer ben­e­fits and job pro­tec­tions and in some cases out­source work to still other com­pa­nies. Some­times, work­ers are hired as con­trac­tors, who are tech­ni­cally self-em­ployed even though they report to the same work­place.

De­u­nion­iza­tion has also eroded work­ers’ in­flu­ence, he said. The U.S. Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics finds the pro­por­tion of wage and salary work­ers in unions was just 10.5 per­cent in 2018, down from 20.1 per­cent in 1983.

Be­gin­ning in the 1970s, ex­perts said, more pub­lic com­pa­nies be­gan to make share­hold­ers their top pri­or­ity.

Work­ers since then have been “de­val­ued as stake­hold­ers,” said Adam Seth Litwin, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell’s School of In­dus­trial and La­bor Re­la­tions. “When work­ers had more power, they had a larger share of that in­come and of that in­come growth.”

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