At work — and earning less

As economy begins to recover, many live on reduced salaries

May 30, 2010|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Richard Siegel is not among the unemployed. Between running a charity, writing songs and doing stand-up comedy, he's got gigs aplenty.

He's just making about half of what he once did.

Despite the gradually improving job market, millions of Americans are earning less. They are the jobless — but also those who can only get part-time work, those who have landed new jobs with lower salaries than what they once earned and others simply getting smaller paychecks in the jobs they've had all along.

It's a problem that could affect their earning power for the rest of their working lives, a study on the similarly punishing 1982 recession suggests. And it packs a financial wallop now.

The downward pressure on wages caused by fierce job competition ripples through the economy to grocery stores, retailers and businesses getting less money from reduced-income customers, and it's a hardship for workers trying to figure out how to pay their bills.

In Siegel's case, he brought in about $60,000 a year before his primary job as promotions director for a comedy club was eliminated. The 49-year-old Parkville resident now relies on his remaining part-time work, which cuts his annual earnings to less than $30,000.

"You can't live on that," said Siegel, who has joint custody of his 12-year-old son, Charlie. "I've been getting some help from my family and a patient landlord."

Unlike the unemployed, now at 10 percent of the population or 15 million people, workers with diminished earning power are a poorly measured part of the labor force. The federal government doesn't track the entire group on a regular basis, only the number of Americans working part-time despite wanting full-time employment.

More than 9 million people were stuck in that situation in April, including workers whose hours had been cut because of slack business conditions. That's more than double the number three years ago, before the recession began.

And they aren't the only workers feeling the income pinch.

Nationwide, half of employers froze pay for at least some workers last year and 13 percent made salary cuts, according to a survey by WorldatWork. The human resources association announced in January that more than one-third of the pay-freezing companies didn't have plans for raises again this year. Many of the firms that cut salaries last year also didn't expect to reverse course soon — 15 percent said the reductions would be permanent.

In Maryland, 70,000 state employees haven't had cost-of-living raises since the 2007 fiscal year. This fiscal year they're losing three to 10 days of pay through furloughs, depending on how much they make. The same number of furlough days are planned for the fiscal year that begins July 1, though Gov. Martin O'Malley is hoping those will be the last required to help balance the annual budget.

"It was either that or lay off a couple thousand people," said Patrick Moran, director of AFSCME Maryland, part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. "Our members came to the conclusion that it was better to keep people employed."

Losing a job during a rough economy can have a lifelong impact on earnings.

Americans who were part of mass layoffs during the 1982 recession took 30 percent pay cuts on average in the short term and never fully recovered, according to a 2009 study by researchers at Columbia University, the Social Security Administration and Congressional Budget Office. Fifteen years to 20 years later, they were making 20 percent less on average than similar workers who weren't laid off.

That recession had been the worst since the Great Depression — until the latest one began at the end of 2007.

"While these earnings losses vary somewhat among demographic groups or industries, no group in the labor market is exempt from significant and long-lasting costs of job loss," co-author Till von Wachter of Columbia University said in congressional testimony last month.

It's not happening to everyone, but laid-off workers are frequently accepting lower pay at new jobs or through temporary consulting positions these days, said Mitch Halbrich, a senior managing director in the Baltimore office of the Mergis Group, a staffing agency.

"Any money is better than no money," said Halbrich, who focuses on white-collar fields such as accounting, finance, information technology and human resources.

Andy Bauer, a regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's office in Baltimore, isn't expecting a quick return to rising salaries — not with so many unemployed Americans looking for work. Even Maryland's better-than-average jobless rate of 7.5 percent is at a 27-year high.

"Once we've removed this excess supply of labor from the labor market, then you should start to see wages moving forward again," Bauer said. "It's going to take some time, unfortunately, just because we have such a large part of the labor force that's unemployed or underemployed."

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