Lisa Weber's employer, National Envelope, was founded in 1952 by a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor named William Ungar.
As the company flourished, Ungar came to believe that being good to employees was good for business. “For a company like ours to achieve its goals, it must have a humane approach to our employees, thereby stimulating their creativity, which in turn will improve our productivity and efficiency,” he wrote in his memoirs.
But National Envelope had to retrench as the decline of paper mail eroded its business. In 2009, the company shut down some plants. It filed for bankruptcy the following year.
In 2010, National Envelope was acquired by the private equity firm Gores Group of Los Angeles, which drew on the standard playbook for such takeovers: Close inefficient plants, cut staffing and demand more from remaining employees. The company has fewer than 2,500 employees now, half the number it had in 2001.
Workers are being asked to do more even as their benefits shrink, said Juan Roman, vice president of the local union that represents workers at the Westfield, Mass., plant.
Employees can accrue up to four weeks of vacation, rather than five; gone are profit sharing and pensions. Workers are now responsible for 1-1/2 machines each,
rather than one, said Roman, who worked at the plant for 23 years until recently becoming a union staff member.
“You do what you have to do to keep the doors open,” he said.
Tough as they may be, those measures have allowed people like Roman and Weber to continue earning paychecks while many of their neighbors are sitting home unemployed, the firm contends.
“Generally, the business had been run the same way since its inception,” said Tim Meyer, a Gores Group executive. “It became clear that as the market began to soften, what was in place was not a sustainable business model.”
“Sometimes you have to make dramatic changes to save the jobs that you can,” he said.
Businesses are encouraged to keep fixed costs, such as labor and rent, as low as possible. That has paid off: The amount of profit companies make per employee has risen 34% since 2004, according to financial analysis firm Sageworks.
But the focus on costs is part of what has made work more stressful for so many.
“Raises are less. Bonuses are less. Managers are required to do clerical work, the staff is so small,” said John Kennedy, a broker at a securities trading firm in Manhattan. “We joke about bringing our own equipment to work.”
Kennedy has thought about leaving, but he is worried that the job market isn't good enough for him to go anywhere else.
His situation is an example of how professionals are experiencing the harsher work environment too. Although long hours were always part of the bargain, professionals often enjoyed a measure of autonomy in their schedules, with the freedom to take off early on a Friday afternoon after a grueling week.
That's increasingly rare. David Tayar spent a decade as an associate attorney at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Manhattan. He said the demands of the job grew so much in that time, he eventually felt he could never take a break.
When he started, Tayar said, he checked his voice mail every few hours. Today, lawyers must check their BlackBerrys every few minutes — and be prepared to cancel a dinner, weekend trip or vacation at a moment's notice. Tayar said he took just one day's vacation in a five-year stretch.
“You can never totally relax — you could be called at any time, unless you're officially on vacation,” Tayar said. “And even if you are, there are times when you're called in to work.”
He left the firm last year for a lower-stress job as general counsel of a laser hair-removal company.
The workplace is even tougher for the millions of Americans who have lost the security of a steady paycheck, as companies rely more on temporary staffing agencies. Temp jobs used to be a gateway to permanent employment. Increasingly, they have become a way of life. About 25% of the workforce is temporary, according to research firm Aberdeen Group, up from 17% in 2009.