Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

‘Not just a low-wage recession’: White-collar workers feel coronavirus squeeze

Share this post

Megan Cassella, Reporter — Staff mugshots photographed Feb. 22, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

The drop in overall employment that white-collar industries have seen in five months is already on par with or worse than the hits they took during the Great Recession.

The coronavirus recession that began as a short-term shutdown devastating low-wage workers is now bearing down on white-collar America, where employers have been slower to rehire and job losses are more likely to be permanent.

Lower-paid workers are losing their jobs at about three times the rate of higher-wage employees. But the drop in overall employment that white-collar industries like real estate, information and professional and technology services have seen in five months is already on par with or worse than the hits they took during the Great Recession — underscoring how even highly paid workers with the ability to telework are vulnerable now.

As the economy begins to crawl back toward its pre-coronavirus normal, lower-paying industries are recovering at a faster clip than those at the higher end of the pay scale, where new job postings have been weak by comparison. Job postings for higher-wage occupations — those offering roughly $50,000 or more annually — remain 28 percent below last year’s trend, while lower-wage postings for jobs offering around $30,000 or lessare down only 12 percent, according to the hiring platform Indeed.

Thetrend suggests that white-collar employers are increasingly unwilling to take expensive risks and hire more higher-wage employees at a time when the economy is precarious at best, economists say. That could spell trouble for the broader economy in the longer-term, in part because spending by high-income consumers supports low-wage jobs. Some economists fear how much more damage higher-paying industries could see in the coming months if economic growth stalls or dips downward again.

“This is not just a low-wage recession,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, who compared job losses in industries paying at least $30 an hour between February and July to the share lost between December 2007 and June 2009.

Swonk found that employment in the information industry is down 11.4 percent now compared to 7.7 percent during the Great Recession, as one example, while employment in management services is down 4.7 percent now compared to 2.4 percent then.

For lower-wage workers who have lost their jobs, “their situation is clearly much more desperate,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t still broader-based than we’ve acknowledged.”

Layoffs in high-wage industries have been mostly overshadowed by those in low-wage occupations that have rolled in at unprecedented levels — more than 28 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, the Labor Department says — and comprise the bulk of the country’s job losses. More than 9 million workers in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners remained out of work at the end of June, compared to 3.3 million in the top 40 percent.

Lower-paid workers are also likely to have a harder time recovering from a period of joblessness, in part because they tend to have fewer savings and are less likely to own a home.

But judged by any other measure — including against previous recessions — the damage to higher-wage workers has been significant.

These industries saw smaller initial declines in employment, but in many cases their losses have since grown even as other sectors of the economy have begun to recover. Employment in finance and insurance was down just over 1 percent between February and late April but nearly 5 percent between February and late June, according to economists from the Federal Reserve and University of Chicago, who analyzed data from the payroll processor ADP.

Each of the 14 other industries analyzed — from food services and retail to construction and manufacturing — had seen larger overall losses but had improved between April and June, the study showed, with the exception of educational services.

Some high-wage sectors, the information industry among them, also continued to see layoffs in July even as the economy added workers, the Labor Department’s latest monthly data shows.

“Those are typically fairly recession-proof industries now that are continuing to lose jobs, even though every other industry is recovering to some degree,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the job-posting platform ZipRecruiter. “That’s really cause for concern and pause.”

Data suggests that layoffs in white-collar industries are more likely to be permanent than those in frontline sectors such as restaurants or retail. The so-called core unemployment rate, which excludes all layoffs that are classified as temporary, has increased more for workers with more education, even as the unemployment rate has generally increased more rapidly for those with less education, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by Jed Kolko, Indeed’s chief economist.

The core unemployment rate has risen by 1.7 percentage points for workers with a bachelor’s degree or more, compared with 0.7 percentage points for those with a high school degree or less, Kolko found.

Nearly 7 million workers have also seen their pay cut since the pandemic began, according to the ADP analysis — most in high-wage industries.

Persistent white-collar layoffs and wage cuts would hold significant effects for the rest of the economy, particularly because spending among wealthier Americans helps support jobs in blue-collar service sector jobs at restaurants, for example, and hair salons or workout studios.

To be sure, if the economic recovery accelerates, higher-paying industries could ultimately emerge relatively unscathed, and continued spending among those workers would help repair damage the shutdowns caused to lower-paying service sectors. Wells Fargo economists acknowledged concerns that layoffs could spread throughout high-wage sectors, hindering any recovery, but said they expect those job losses to be limited.

Still, high-income spending remains down more than 8 percent compared to January levels, more than any other income bracket, according to the Opportunity Insights tracker. Economists warn that trend could continue even after businesses fully reopen if a share of white-collar workers remain unemployed.

“It’s in those kinds of high-wage cities like New York and San Francisco where low-wage workers have actually seen the steepest losses, and one reason is because of the decline in spending in higher-wage households,” Pollak said.

White-collar layoffs could also spark a trend of underemployment, where better-educated workers are applying for jobs below their skill level, edging out applicants who might be more suited for the position, economists say. More than 2 in 5 active job seekers already say they are applying for jobs for which they are overqualified, according to a ZipRecruiter survey published this month.

And more broadly, the sluggish uptick in hiring in high-wage sectors could be a warning sign from employers who see so much uncertainty that they would rather wait and see where the economic recovery is headed before bulking up their workforce.

“It’s a red flag for the job market,” Kolko said. “I think it’s telling us something about where those employers think the economy is going to be in quarters or even a couple years from now.”

It’s both expensive and time-consuming for high-paying employers to recruit and hire new employees, and that process likely won’t begin for many until they feel certain the economy is picking up again.

“If you’ve weathered the storm so far,” Swonk said, “you don’t want to place big bets until you get to the other side of it.”

The relative lack of attention these job losses have gotten could be creating a false sense of security among some high-wage workers who so far have felt removed from the effects of the coronavirus shutdowns battering frontline industries, some economists say.

Murphy Whitsitt was earning $105,000 annually as a national service manager for Polytype America, a company that builds printer machinery for product labels. He was able to work from home for the first few months of the pandemic, but his company furloughed him in June once “there was no end in sight.”

He and his family moved from New Jersey back to Iowa, where they owned a home, to save on rent costs. They’ve gotten a delay in paying their Iowa mortgage, and he recently received his first unemployment check after eight weeks of waiting.

He recognizes that he’s far better off than lower-paid workers who have fewer resources to lean on. But he’s not expected back at work until at least January, and without further help from Congress, he’s not sure how he’ll pay his mortgage bill when it comes due in the fall.

“We’ll eventually be okay,” Whitsitt said. “But it’s definitely been stressful.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


Share this post

Obama Administration Proposes Expansion of Overtime Rights for Workers

Share this post

jillian johnson1Millions of workers who have not been receiving overtime pay would become eligible under a newly announced rule change. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the number of newly overtime eligible workers could be as high as 15 million. The change would update what is known as the “white collar” exemption to the overtime pay rules that covers certain executive, administrative and professional employees. Currently, these types of employees can be classified as “exempt” (meaning not entitled to mandatory overtime pay) so long as they are paid a salary of at least $455 per week ($23,660 per year) – an amount that is below the poverty line for a family of four and that has not been adjusted since 2004. Under the new rules, the minimum salary requirement for exempt white collar workers would increase to $970 per week ($50,440 per year) for 2016 and be indexed going forward to keep pace with inflation. Workers whose salary falls below this level would now be classified as “non-exempt” and guaranteed time-and-a-half for all hours worked over 40 per week.

While some big business groups are opposing the proposed changes, claiming terrible economic consequences will result if their labor costs increase; this is nothing new and the same cry that is heard every time they are forced to increase wages. The facts and history do not, however, support their dire warnings. In cities such as San Francisco and Santa Fe where the minimum wage has for years been set well above the federal minimum, and even coupled with other employee benefits such as paid sick leave and health-care, the impacts on employment have been essentially zero. Contrary to the claims of catastrophic job loss and business closing, studies have shown “no measurable” negative effect on employment when cities or states have raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. Historically, increased pay for workers tends to generate a positive feedback loop – workers earn more, spend more, resulting in positive economic activity.

To put the pay figures in perspective, look back 40 years. In 1975 the minimum salary amount was adjusted and set to $250 per week. At that time, 65% of the American workforce was paid less – entitling them to overtime pay. Today, however, a mere 11% of the workforce earn less than the $455 per week minimum. Today, the $250 per week minimum salary would equate to more than $980 per week (approximately $51,000 per year) if it had been annually adjusted per the Consumer Price Index. So, to merely keep middle-class workers in the same economic position they were in as of 1975, the current $455 per week minimum salary would need to be increased to at least $980 per week. This is roughly what is being proposed under the new rules.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was implemented in 1938 to specifically address the serious problems caused by the overworking and underpayment of our nation’s core middle-class workforce. The two primary reasons the FLSA was put into place are:

  • First, to protect against working conditions that are “detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”  The law recognizes that employees need some time off to spend with family and relaxing from often stressful work and provides an economic incentive to not overwork employees. If an employer is going to demand work hours that deprive employees of this precious down time, the law places a premium value on such time – a cost that the employer must cover.
  • Second, requiring the payment of time and a-half for all hours over 40 per week creates and strong economic incentive for employers to hire more people and spread the work, instead of overworking their existing staff. This helps to reduce overall unemployment in the U.S. economy, an issue every bit as relevant today as it was 75+ years ago.

The proposed changes to the overtime pay regulations are important to restore fair pay to millions of middle-class workers and are consistent with the overall goals and policy objectives that originally inspired the federal overtime pay laws.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jillian Johnson. Jillian Johnson is a freelance writer from New Jersey who has contributed to an array of blogs of various industries, particularly business, finance and health.  She freelanced for a local NJ parenting magazine “Curious Parents” magazine and wrote for her college newspaper, “The Tower,” ultimately becoming the Editor-in-Chief. Jillian holds a BA in Communications and is currently working towards a BSN.


Share this post

What’s Green, White and Blue? American Jobs

Share this post

Leo GerardRed, as in furiously red, defined the day last fall when a consortium of companies announced it wanted $450 million in U.S. stimulus money to build a wind farm in Texas, creating 2,000 jobs in China and 300 in America.

Now, nine months later, things have cooled down and turned around. In a deal with the United Steelworkers (USW), two Chinese companies have agreed to build as much of the wind turbines as possible in America, using American-made steel, and creating perhaps 1,000 American jobs.

The deal is a result of white collar Chinese executives negotiating with blue collar union officers to create green collar jobs in the U.S. The agreement defies stereotypes about unions as constantly combative, excessively expensive and environmentally challenged. The USW has a track record of engaging with enlightened CEOs for mutual benefit.  It has a long green history. And it has worked to return off-shored jobs to the U.S.

The USW, like the Democrats in the House and Senate with their Make It in America program, is devoted to preserving and creating family-supporting, prosperity-generating manufacturing jobs in America. And if they’re green, all the better.

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross has first-hand experience negotiating with unions, including the USW, to sustain U.S. manufacturing. He describes it positively. Here he is on PBS’ Charlie Rose on Aug. 2:

“I have found the leaders of big industrial unions, the steelworkers, the auto workers, they understand dynamics of industry at least as well as the senior management of the companies.”

Ross talked to Rose about dealing with the USW during the time when he was buying  LTV Steel:

“We worked out a contract that took 32 job classifications down to five, changed work rules to make it more flexible and most important of all, we put in a blue collar bonus system. . .We became the most efficient steel company in America. We were making steel with less than one man hour per ton. The Chinese at the time were using six man hours per ton. We were actually exporting some steel to China.”

Ross accomplished that while paying among the highest wages for manufacturing workers in America.

The USW approached the Chinese companies that planned the $1.5 billion Texas wind farm, A-Power Energy Generation Systems Ltd. and Shenyang Power Group, the same way it did Ross. The meetings occurred with the help of U.S. Renewable Energy Group, a private equity firm that facilitates international financing and investment in renewable energy projects. Jinxiang Lu, chairman and chief executive of Shenyang Power, said talking to the union enabled him to see its “vision for win-win relationships between manufacturers and workers.”

For the USW, this deal means the Chinese firms will initially buy approximately 50,000 tons of steel manufactured in unionized American mills to fabricate towers and rebar for the 615 megawatt wind farm in Texas, will employ Americans at a wind turbine assembly plant to be built in Nevada, and will employ more American workers in green jobs at plants constructing the blades, towers and thousands of other wind turbine parts.

For the Chinese companies, the USW, the largest manufacturing union in America, will use its long list of industry contacts to help construct an American supply chain essential to amass the approximately 8,000 components in a wind turbine. The idea is to collaboratively create a solid manufacturing, assembly, component sourcing, and distribution system so that this team – the Chinese companies, U.S. Renewable Energy Group and the USW — will build many more wind farms after the first in Texas.

Additional wind farms mean more renewable energy freeing the U.S. from reliance on foreign oil. As U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says, there’s no point in replacing imported foreign oil with imported wind turbines. For energy and economic independence, green manufacturing capacity and green jobs must be in the U.S.

This deal does that. And there’s nothing unusual about foreign companies employing Americans. Many Americans, including USW members, already work in factories owned by many different foreign national companies, including German, Russian, Japanese, Mexican, and Brazilian, with names like Bridgestone-Firestone, Arcelor-Mittal, Rio Tinto, Grupo Mexico, Svenska Cellulosa AB (SCA) and Severstal.

In at least one other case, action by the USW forced the hand of a Chinese company to move jobs to the U.S. Tianjin Pipe, the world’s largest manufacturer of steel pipe, said it could not export profitably to the United States if tariffs rose above 20 percent. This was after the USW and seven steel manufacturers filed a petition with U.S. trade agencies in April of 2009 accusing China of illegally dumping and subsidizing the type of pipe used in the oil and gas industry. The union won that case this past April, and the U.S. Commerce Department imposed import duties ranging from 30 to 100 percent to give the domestic industry relief from the unfair trade practices. To continue selling in the U.S., Tianjin Pipe had no choice but to build an American pipe mill. Construction is expected to begin in Texas this fall on the $1 billion plant to employ 600 by 2010.

Although the USW is cooperating with A-Power and Shenyang Power, it will not back off its trade cases involving exported Chinese steel, pipe, tires, paper and other manufactured products. The stakes for U.S. jobs are just too high.

Back in 1990, when green was not as trendy, the USW recognized that the environment would be among the most important issues of the era and issued the report, “Our Children’s World.”  Since then, it has steadily promoted green — became a founding member of the BlueGreen Alliance and Apollo Alliance, which promote renewable energy and renewable energy jobs.

Good, green American manufacturing jobs. Establishing American energy independence. It is win-win. And it’s getting a green light now.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.