Fearing pay cuts as the new normal

Wall Street bankers make too much money -- on that the American public may be in near-unanimous agreement.

But what about your own compensation? Can you justify it in this still-struggling economy?

One inevitable effect of this recession’s massive job losses and plunge in consumer and business spending has been downward pressure on the wages and benefits of many of those who still are working.

That pressure has been evident for the last 18 months or so, of course, as the unemployment rate has climbed relentlessly.


Now, with the economic downturn seemingly over as measured by the classic gauge of gross domestic product growth, the question is whether workers’ piece of the economic pie will begin to grow again.

There are some hopeful signs. Toolmaker Black & Decker Corp., which this week agreed to sell itself to rival Stanley Works, decided to reverse employee pay cuts of up to 10% that were initiated in April.

An October survey of 200 U.S. companies found that 35% of firms that had previously cut matching contributions to 401(k) savings plans were planning to reinstitute those payments in the next six months, up from the 24% that had said they’d do so in an August survey, according to consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Yet the magnitude of job losses here and abroad in this devastating recession poses a huge risk to the future compensation of the still-employed: What if, for years to come, there are masses of qualified people willing to do what you do -- but for much less pay?

The U.S. economy has lost more than 7 million private-sector jobs since December 2007, dwarfing the 3.3 million lost in the 2001 recession and its aftermath.

“Never has business shed so many workers so fast, so many people failed to find work who are looking for work, and so many dropped out of the labor force as in the current circumstance,” said Allen Sinai, head of Decision Economics Inc.

What’s more, even analysts who are optimistic about a recovery in 2010 expect that many U.S. companies will be slow to rehire, given the understandable caution that last year’s financial-system meltdown has bred. That could guarantee that the ranks of the jobless will remain swollen.

With jobs extraordinarily scarce, Americans’ confidence about the economy is mired at low levels. The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer confidence index for November, reported Friday, fell to 66.0 from 70.6 last month, the second straight decline. The index has crashed from nearly 100 in January 2007, though it’s up from the 19-year low of 55.3 reached one year ago.


One statistic in the confidence survey is particularly telling, said Richard Curtin, the survey’s director: A mere one in 10 consumers said their household income had risen in the last 12 months, the lowest reading in the survey’s 63-year history.

Though the lack of income growth stems from a number of factors, including the stock market’s deep decline and the plunge in interest rates on bank savings, “it’s primarily work-related,” Curtin said. Fewer companies were in a position to give raises, and many have chiseled away at workers’ compensation by reducing pay or, more commonly, benefits.

The employment cost index -- the government’s broad measure of growth in private- and public-sector worker compensation -- rose just 1.5% in the 12 months ended in September, down from 2.9% in the previous 12-month period. The index measures the combined increase in wages and benefits.

A narrower index that measures growth in wages alone for private-sector workers inched up 1.4% in the same 12 months, the smallest rise since the government began keeping statistics in 1975.


From businesses’ viewpoint this is hardly all bad news, or not bad news, period. Their ability to reduce or restrain labor costs -- as is typical in any recession -- has been key to lessening the damage done to profit as sales have plunged.

What’s troubling is the idea that many companies might have little or no incentive to raise pay or benefits in an economic recovery simply because labor worldwide remains in such a surplus.

The nightmare scenario for workers would be a race to the bottom in the wages and benefits offered by employers, as the desperate jobless lower their pay expectations and in turn force those still working to accept less.

There’s no evidence that that is happening on a huge scale now, with business conditions at least stabilizing. But if the economy falls into recession again in 2010, the threat to compensation levels could balloon.


“For many adults, in their entire lives the idea that nominal wages would fall was not a possibility,” said Paul Harrington, associate director at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “This is a completely new issue.”

Of course, plenty of entrepreneurs and salespeople have long been used to fluctuating incomes. But Harrington’s point is that many or most people haven’t planned for a significant drop in pay during their working lives.

It’s also true that a race to the bottom in compensation would require that companies abandon any pretense of caring about their workers. That’s highly unlikely to happen at many firms, particularly smaller businesses.

Watson Wyatt’s October survey found that 65% of firms said they were more concerned now about retaining “critical-skill” and top-performing employees than they were before the economy’s dive.


And obviously, people who have what employers want will always find themselves in demand.

There is, however, a hard-core camp in the economics world that believes the only way to put America’s new army of jobless back to work is via a deep reduction in labor costs overall -- enough to make the U.S. far more competitive with overseas rivals.

A slow way to achieve that reduction would be to allow the dollar’s value to continue to slide against other currencies, a trend that has been underway since 2001.

The fast way -- sudden and steep pay cuts across much of the economy -- is a chilling concept. It would risk a deflationary spiral of falling incomes leading to falling prices for goods and services as workers have less to spend -- exactly the spiral that the Federal Reserve is so intent on stopping before it can get any momentum.