Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote an editorial that contrasts the few workers who get good benefits and the rest who are “replaceable.” Reich notes that Netflix and some other large companies are offering better work-life balance to their employees. However, these employees are considered “talent,” people who are hard to replace. Reich says this about the rest: “Employees treat replaceable workers as costs to be cut, not as assets to be developed.” Rather than work-life balance, these people endure what Reich calls “work as life.”
Reich is not referring to low wage workers. Instead, citing a recent story in the New York Times, he is talking about Amazon and similar companies that ask employees to give up family and personal interests in the name of professional advancement. He notes that Sheryl Sandberg can advise young women to “lean in” because it makes sense from her privileged status as an executive. Some do enjoy good benefits. For most workers – even some with high incomes – the workplace generates stress and anxiety, offering little chance to live a balanced life. Once again, Reich helps us look beyond the headlines and ask critical questions about how we can manager our careers and our lives.
Of course, things could be even worse. Jan Mickelson, an Iowa talk show host, has suggested that any undocumented worker who does not leave the U.S. should become “property of the state of Iowa.” He adds that these people would be an “asset.” Was Mickelson joking? If so, the joke was vulgar. It further shows how some Americans have no respect for hard work and the people who do it. Work should be paid, not as Mickelson puts it, “compelled.”
It sounds like a good thing when an employer offers education reimbursement. In many ways, it is. Knowledge stays with us even when we leave a job. However, there are restrictions that should be investigated before knowing how valuable this benefit would be for you.
First, know what is covered. Many companies only pay for education that is related to your job function.
Second, some employers require that employees maintain a certain GPA, or tuition is not reimbursed.
Third, employer-sponsored education is tax-free up to $5,250 annually. If the reimbursement is larger, the employee has to report extra taxable income.
Finally, you have to work at company for a required period of time, or you will be required to repay part of the tuition. This condition is the most serious downside of the benefit. Accepting tuition reimbursement can limit your ability to move to a new employer. Know what the terms for repayment are before you take any education reimbursement.
Education can open many career doors. However, if an employer is offering a reimbursement, know what the conditions are before you take advantage of this benefit.
USA Today had some good news: benefits are on the rise. Companies offering paid maternity leave have increased over the last year from 12% to 21%. Over the same period, paid sick leave has increased from 33% to 42%. Family leave is up from 19% to 24%. The article even cited some companies that are offering “unlimited vacation.”
This all sounds good. However, as I’ve noted in recent posts, income is not rising in a significant way for most Americans. Payscale offers an informative chart that demonstrates how little pay in the U.S. has changed from 2007 to the Present. Benefits are good only when they are needed. Wage increases give people more control over their lives, more of a feeling of security.
Writing in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson examines the plight of temporary workers. In many cases, especially if the worker is employed in a factory, a temp job will pay less, be more dangerous, and not be temporary. Temp workers are performing the same tasks as full-time employees with few being on hired to full-time status. Some of these jobs pay as little as $10 per hour. As the U.S. came out of previous recessions, the rise of contract work preceded increased hiring. Now,employer leverage temp workers as a way to hold down labor costs while getting the same level of productivity. Workers have low pay, few benefits, and no security. If this is the way manufacturing will come back to America, it might be better if this type of job stay overseas.
Huffington Post has posted a Reuters report that Walmart is only hiring temporary employees in several states. This move lets the retailers staff busy times without taking on full time employees, The report also notes that hours of some full time employees are being cut. Other retailers are following a similar model.
As I blogged yesterday, the biggest problem facing workers today isn’t unemployment. It is wages. It doesn’t matter if someone is at a low wage job or if they are paid a decent hourly wage with limited hours, in either case, the worker is not making enough money. Walmart and other companies are looking ways to push up profits and share prices. Too often they are doing so on the backs of working people.
A client called me yesterday. He was very worried about an email he sent a friend that included negative information about his boss. Why was he worried? He sent the email from a work-owned computer. Could they track or read this email. Since it was on his Gmail account, I think it’s unlikely that the document can be read by his employer. However, the employer can tell that he is using is email for non-work purposes, which could be a problem in itself.
If you have any kind of employer-owned tool (computer, phone, car, etc.), be sure that you know and abide by the company’s rules. Some companies let employees use these tools for personal business. Even in these cases, I would recommend being very careful in how you use anything owned by an employer. While it’s tempting to only use one phone and computer, there’s an equally good case to be made for always having your own computer and phone, especially if you are conducting a job search while you are employed. Keep work tools and personal information separate.
I read an interesting article today about local companies that offer “summer schedules.” These enlightened employers let employees to work longer days between Monday and Thursday in order to take off all or part of Friday, which lets the employee have a longer weekend during the summer. That truly is a benefit. However, not many companies offer it, especially if the type of work being done is blue collar or low wage.
There’s a different kind of flexible work that is becoming popular: contingent labor. Employers want the ability to increase or decrease staffing quickly without taking on the burden of full time employees. Employment services or outsourced work firms hire staff on a contingent, and then “fill orders” with the employer who needs flexibility. From the employer’s point of view, this system works great. The employee has a different perspective.
Under a contingent system, there is no guaranteed number of hours (and usually no benefits). There is also no set schedule. When there is work, the employee has to work if she wants to get paid. Some employers market these jobs as having a flexible schedule. The problem with this claim is that it is one way. Contingent work models make no commitment to the employee. In fact, they are modeled in a way to make each employee immediately replaceable, a cog in the machine.
I once managed a contingent workforce. In hiring new staff, I underscored what the job entailed and what it could not promise. For people with full time jobs or other sources of income, a contingent work model real can offer flexibility and a little extra cash. The problem is that more and more jobs that were full time are now becoming contingent. Jobs in manufacturing, assembly, distribution were once good jobs that gave employees a secure 40 hours a week and insurance. Many companies are now using a lean full time staff and supplementing with outsourced, contingent labor.
Again, if we are solely looking at this trend from the employer’s perspective, it’s a winner. Labor costs are reduced and all of the hassle of HR administration is borne by the temporary service or outsourced firm. The employee now has to bear the burden of finding enough hours to pay bills along with the insecurity of having no medical insurance. Where summer work schedules discussed above are an example of an employer being flexible, the employee must be flexible in the contingent model, ready to scramble when the phone rings.
As Michael Harrington wrote in The Other American, the working poor in the U.S. are often invisible. We take their labor for granted and train our consciences not to care about what they are paid. The problem is that the number of people in bad jobs – low wage or contingent – is growing. With no sense of security and little income, they buy only what is needed, which explain why “dollar stores” are booming. The entire economy will suffer as this trend continues. As a country, we need to wake up.
A compromise bill has passed the New York City Council to require employers to give employees sick days. What’s surprising about this – or maybe not surprising – is that very few American workers receive sick days. Daily Kos has published a map of countries that require sick days. Once again, the U.S. does not follow the pattern of most developed countries. Workers in the U.S. are under attack. We need to look at other countries and look at our own history. It’s time to fight back.
Steve Early has a great article in the Nation that examines corporate wellness programs. The programs sound good on the surface since they promote, as Early puts it, “a social good.” The deeper problem is about employer’s motives and the real impact of the program. Employees who don’t comply with the program will face higher payments for healthcare if they fail to meet standards set by the employer. Is the real purpose of such programs better health for working people or a shift of health care costs from employer to employee? Given how the wage game has been going for the past few decades, it’s not too cynical to say that employers’ first concern isn’t the employees’ health. It’s a stealth and selective salary cut, another way to push money up and pain down.
One of my clients was very excited about a job posting she found. It offered a great benefit: free lunch each work day. I asked my client what she knew about the company’s salary structure or benefit plan. That was not included in the job post. Why would they focus on “giving” a free lunch? Probably because they’re not giving something else: pay, medical benefits, 401K match.
Magicians work magic through misdirection. While the audience focuses on the right hand, the left hand is pulling off the real trick. Whenever a job post or a company offers something that seems really good, watch both hands. Nothing is free.
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