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Economic bounty never reached most U.S. workers

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001


A remarkable number appeared last week in a Florida newspaper. A number so startling that it deserves a second look. Even a third.

That number is $237-million.

That's how much the 25 highest-paid executives in Florida collectively pulled down in compensation last year. That's more than double the nearly $111-million the state's top 25 were paid in 1999. Last year, the top five earners (including two Tampa Bay executives) had a combined income of $107-million, almost as much as the previous year's top 25 made together. These numbers, from a Miami Herald survey, were reported on Monday.

Houston -- and Tampa Bay and Miami and Orlando and just about anywhere -- we have a problem.

Runaway paycheck syndrome, an affliction of many CEOs and other top executives, is well documented and probably covered to a fault. But the Herald's statewide survey serves as the latest vivid reminder that the executive strata is a very tiny slice of America's work force.

Most U.S. workers, despite a remarkable bull market for the past decade, have largely stagnated economically. And they continue to struggle with rising work demands, higher health care premiums (if they have health insurance at all) for declining care, poor child care options and, increasingly, rising costs for basic housing.

The plight of the middle-class worker is detailed in White-Collar Sweatshop, a recent book that chronicles the deterioration of work in the stress-ridden (and now, with layoffs in vogue, more precarious) corporate workplace.

Author and financial journalist Jill Andresky Fraser argues that the highly touted economic bounty of the 1990s overlooked many white-collar workers. Between 1988 and 1998, the middle 20 percent of American families saw only a $780 increase in annual income, Fraser writes. The richest 5 percent enjoyed a gain of $50,760.

Fraser's workplace tales are not those of imploding dot-com companies (well told in last year's book, Net Slaves), but mainstream, Fortune 500 heavyweights. At semiconductor giant Intel Corp., staffers learned at business-update meetings (nicknamed BUMs) about department quotas intended to single out layoff candidates (dubbed "slower-thans").

At a large financial company, Fraser notes, a female manager was so understaffed that she had been forced to work through the entire night before her wedding. Other tales in Sweatshop depict similarly depressing experiences, including my personal favorite about Bank of America -- one this newspaper reported.

In December 1999, the bank sent out a brochure to employees suggesting that they "adopt an ATM" as part of a "voluntary" program. The idea was for employees to clean up their adopted ATMs, trim nearby bushes, wipe the glass and pick up trash -- all on their own time and without pay. The bank said the idea was to improve customer service and "boost morale."

Of 158,000 workers, 2,800 people signed up, obviously because, as Fraser says, they thought their custodial skills might lead management to spare them in the next round of layoffs.

I guess it beats polishing the manager's car after work. But maintaining ATMs without pay is not on any list of morale boosters I've seen.

That's just a piece of Fraser's sweatshop portrait. The rise of such electronic gadgets as cell phones, beepers, laptops and Palm organizers and the Internet have helped tether many workers to their jobs whether or not they are physically there. At the same time, companies (all in the name of productivity and security) increasingly monitor their office workers by tracking phone calls and voice mails, reading e-mails and installing surveillance cameras.

Worker discontent is why so many Internet Web sites have emerged that are dedicated to chronicling (or lampooning) lousy corporate workplaces. At www.workingwounded.com, for example, workers share their unhappy stories and swap workplace advice. Many other Web sites are company-specific and often angrier. Among them: www.faceintel.com, with "face" standing for Former and Current Employees.

"In intensified global competition -- or in an economic downturn in which American corporations must turn to their employees for the competitive edge that will enable them to survive and thrive -- many will find that they have alienated and exhausted the human capital that was once one of their greatest resources," Fraser concludes.

If Sweatshop helps capture some of the white-collar workers' angst, Barbara Ehrenreich's recent book, Nickel and Dimed, captures the anxieties of low-wage America.

Ehrenreich is a widely known author of books about the country's insecure middle and struggling lower classes. For Nickel and Dimed, subtitled "On (Not) Getting By in America," she spent one month each in Key West, a town in Maine and Minneapolis. In each city, posing as a divorced homemaker, she looked for the best-paying unskilled job she could get. Her goal: to see if she could earn enough to make some kind of modest, independent living.

In Key West, Ehrenreich applied for jobs at 20 motels and restaurants before she was able to get work at a family restaurant on the 2 to 10 p.m. shift. Paid $2.43 an hour plus tips, she initially lived 30 miles out of town to find cheap rent. When her pay slipped in the off-tourist season, she was forced to take a second waitress job. In turn, she had to move closer to expensive Key West and settled for a "desolate" 8-foot-wide trailer.

"There are not exactly people here but what amounts to canned labor, being preserved between shifts from the heat," Ehrenreich writes.

In Portland, Maine, she gets work as a house cleaner at Merry Maids for $6.65 an hour (the customer pays $25 an hour per cleaning person to the service). Maids are rotated from one customer home to the next to minimize the chance of customers forming any sympathy for the maids.

Again, Ehrenreich finds she must take a second job (weekends at a nursing home) to pay basic living expenses.

And in Minneapolis, she takes a job at Wal-Mart paying $7 an hour.

Keep in mind, Ehrenreich's tales took place during strong economic times. But there was little evidence the country's boom time was reaching many lower-wage workers.

In each city, she found that one low-wage job was insufficient. Two jobs were barely adequate and were exhausting. Often, Ehrenreich worked alongside people in difficult situations -- lacking adequate food and health insurance and living in cars.

Her reaction: If you're going to venture into the low-wage world, you'd better have the stomach for other people's pain.

In practical terms, the biggest problem she found in each city was a lack of affordable housing.

During one low moment at the end of a waitressing shift, Ehrenreich says, when she was sagging against a counter, she found herself thinking: "If I were a better writer, cleverer, more influential, I wouldn't have to have gone to this extreme."

(No wonder there's even a Web site, www.bitterwaitress.com, for stressed-out waitresses to voice their complaints and share their stories.)

I'm glad Ehrenreich made an effort to remind us of the plight of low-wage workers. None of the jobs she took was minimum wage. None was enough to sustain her without taking on additional work. And none of the jobs came with benefits or, had Ehrenreich had kids, provisions for child care.

While newspapers have spent much of the past 10 years quoting giddy economists praising the country's remarkable expansion, plenty of people -- middle class and low-wage earners alike -- missed out on the boom.

Which gets us back to that remarkable compensation number: $237-million. Nearly one-quarter billion dollars split among just 25 Florida executives last year.

When is enough enough?

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

Top five paychecks in Florida ...

James Broadhead, FPL Group, Juno Beach $39,595,593

Satish K. Sanan, IMRglobal, Clearwater $31,764,588

John P. Byrnes, Lincare Holdings, Clearwater $12,595,855

Paul J. Evanson, FPL Group, Juno Beach $11,736,003

Jeffrey A. Stoops, SBA Communications, Boca Raton $11,540,707

* * *

Six of top 25 are in Tampa Bay...

Satish K. Sanan, IMRglobal, Clearwater $31,764,588

John P. Byrnes, Lincare Holdings, Clearwater $12,595,855

Paul G. Gabos, Lincare Holdings, Clearwater $7,027,187

Mark T. Mondello, Jabil Circuit, St. Petersburg $6,797,410

George W. Off, Catalina Marketing, St. Petersburg $5,249,331

Wesley B. Edwards, Jabil Circuit, St. Petersburg $4,695,831

- Source: Miami Herald survey of public companies, compensation in 2000

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