I followed up on two more of the interview subject from “Down the Up Escalator” and found these people who once had real jobs now working part time or free lance with no benefits. I wrote an article about them for the website TomDispatch and the piece went viral. That is to say it was reposted on over thirty left of center web sites ranging in size from The Huffington Post and Salon to Island Breeze and I got 12 notes from old friends who were glad to see I was still alive. So if not exactly viral it went paramician. Those who’ve read “Down the UP Escalator” may remember Ina Bromberg who worked at “The Boutique” and Greg Feldman who lost his job doing graphics with a text book company. for those who haven’t read the book I’ve included the background that will help you understand how their old jobs were magically converted during the recession. Here’s the article.
Abracadabra: You’re Free-Lance
Watch closely: I’m about to demystify the sleight-of-hand by which good jobs were transformed into bad jobs during the dark days of the Great Recession.
First be aware what a weird recession and recovery this has been. From the end of an “average” American recession, it takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak. But in June 2013—four full years after the official end of the Great Recession—we finally recovered three quarters of the jobs we lost. [8.7 million jobs lost: 6.6 million regained.]
But here’s the truly mysterious phenomenon. Twenty-one percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less. But 58% of the regained jobs are low-wage. The common interpretation of that startling statistic is that the bad jobs are coming back first: the good jobs will follow.
But I say the good jobs are already here among us. It’s just their wages, benefits and security that have vanished.
Let me draw back the curtain to show exactly how some companies accomplished this disappearing trick.
Ina Bromberg genuinely likes to out-fit people. Trim and well-dressed herself, Ina sells petites at the Madison Avenue flagship store of a designer brand with several hundred outlets. Even I had heard of the label. But I had to ask their exact place in the fashion hierarchy. “We fall into a niche below Barney’s-Bergdorf-Chanel,” she explained.
In the course of a twenty-year career Ina, now in her sixties, had been the companies top earning national sales associate more than once. Her loyal clients come in each season to say “You know what I like. What have you got for me?” But when I met her during the recession, her hours had been cut back.
“They’ve moved the entire sales staff onto flexible schedules,” she explained. “On Thursday we are told what our schedule will be for the following week. When they told me my new hours that first week, it was down to ten. I said ‘why don’t you just lay me off. I can collect unemployment.’ And she said ‘No, no, it won’t be this way every week.’”
“Maybe this is their way of sharing the work in order to keep the experienced people till the recession is over,” I suggested. That used to be standard practice during a downturn.
Ina didn’t think so. She referred me to an article about her firm on a fashion web site. “Read the responses,” she said. “These are by people who worked in the office–probably not anymore. They say that in some of the stores they’ve taken all the full time people and made them part time. And with that there’s no more sick days, no more vacation days, no more commissions for anyone. They say they’re going to do that to all the stores, even New York.”
“Do your managers say the short hours are just for the recession?” I asked. “Do they thank you for making sacrifices till business picks up?”
“Not that I ever heard,” Ina answered. “I think–and I’ve been saying this for a year and a half–I think their ultimate goal is to have all part-time sales people working shifts of 41/2 hours. That way they’re not responsible for lunch, they have a lot of bodies, they pay no commissions, no benefits and it’s a constant turnover. This is what I think they want even after the recession because,” here she leaned in as though to reveal a secret “they haven’t stopped hiring people.” She checked to see if I grasped the significance of that.
I did and so did her fellow saleswomen. But it’s hard to go job hunting during a recession. So while a few of the old professionals left at that point, most held on, chewing over any bits of information they could pick up that might indicate management’s intentions. “In our store we know they’ve continued the health benefits until March,” Ina said. “What will happen after is what we’re trying to find out.”
Eventually the company broke the suspense. Managers called the remaining full-timers into the office and gave them two choices. They could take a small severance package and collect unemployment or they could stay, if they wished, but as part-timers with no benefits and no commissions. In a way, the company had made U.S. unemployment benefits a part of it’s buy-out package. They were saying, in effect, “You go voluntarily and we’ll agree we laid you off.”
Four years after the official end of the recession I interviewed Ina again. She was the only one of the former sales staff still working there. Her earnings were less than a fourth of what they’d been a few years earlier.
“I can afford to retire,” she assured me. “In a way I already am. I just like coming out of the house and seeing my regular customers. But everyone who had to support themselves left.
“All the new people are young,” Ina complained. “They have no commitment to the job. They skip days whenever they feel like it. But why shouldn’t they?” she asked, reversing her judgmental tone. “It used to be if you missed a day you missed a chance to earn commissions. It mattered. But at nine or ten dollars an hour, if they have something else to do they skip it.
“The job is only worth it if you’re a college student and the hours are a perfect fit for your schedule. If that changes the next term, they leave. And it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the company. They treat employees like nothing now. I don’t mean it has to be a family, but it isn’t even a team.”
I just checked the company’s web-site under “careers.” They were advertising for over 70 sales assistants in their various North American stores. All but one of the positions was listed as part time. The sole full time job happened to be in Canada.
Here’s how the same magic trick works a little higher up the career ladder.
Greg Feldman did computer graphics for an educational publisher. They produce test preparation material for school districts. One day during the recession his company laid off some 20 staffers including Feldman. As far as I can tell their business wasn’t declining. (Standardized test prep must be one of the last things desperate school districts cut.)
“When I got home I went into panic mode,” Feldman remembered. “I said I better redo my resume before the weekend. And I did. But there were a couple of openings I could have applied for that day—one full time one long term temp. But I waited till after the week-end to send it in. That was in November and this is February. I’m on the web sites every day and I haven’t come across any other regular staff positions since those two.”
Four years later Feldman was piecing together his living by combining a steady but low paying part time job with free-lance gigs. He still considers himself unemployed. When ever we speak he enumerates the new programs he’s mastered and asks me about job leads.
But is Feldman really unemployed by post recession standards? He may not have a full time job with his old company but neither does anyone else who does the work he used to do for them.
It’s by no means impossible, I once suggested to Feldman, that he himself might wind up doing some of their work through a sub-contractor.
“Possible but not likely,” he answered. “What I heard is that they send that work overseas now.”
When industrial workers were hit hard in the 1970s and 1980s the excuse for breaking their unions, lowering their wages and outsourcing their work (when an excuse was deemed necessary) was that we had to compete with foreign manufacturers. But not to worry. There might be tough times ahead for a few blue collar troglodytes who couldn’t be retrained, but the rest of us would soon be data manipulators in the post industrial society.
Feldman is as post industrial as you can get and his company is not competing with foreign firms. But one doesn’t seem to need excuses these days to make people cheaper and more replaceable.
The recession, itself certainly doesn’t explain these job transformations. Traditionally during recessions employers reduced hours or laid people off in a way that would enable them to reconstitute their experienced work force when business picked up. In the meantime they competed on price and took less profit. As a result, the share of national income that went to owners and investors used to decline during a recession while the share that went to workers actually went up.
But Ina and Greg’s employers didn’t hunker down till the recession was over. They used the downturn to dump entire departments and reorganize so that the same work, requiring the same skills would henceforth be done by contingent workers.
Many other companies must have been doing the same thing. For during the course of the Great Recession corporate profits went up by 25-30%. Meanwhile wages, as a share of national income fell to the lowest its been since it began to be recorded after World War II.
According to the latest Labor Department figures, 65% of the jobs added to the economy in July 2013 were part-time. The average hourly wage fell slightly. Interpreters of those statistics will make it sound as though factories are firing: burger joints are hiring. That’s a situation that could change by itself over time. But if good jobs are being transmuted into lead by the alchemy I described, they’re not coming back gradually, certainly not without a fight.
I checked back with Ina Bromberg to see if anything had changed for the sales women in her store as the nation crawled into recovery.
“The hours are creeping back up,” she said, and pointed out an irony. “When they started all this they told us that short shifts make us more efficient. Now they’re letting a few people work, six, seven, even eight hours some days.”
I asked if benefits and commission were also creeping back.
“Of course not!” she answered.
“It’s sad in a way,” Ina mused. “If one of these young women gets eight hours for a while, she’ll think she has a regular job. None of them can remember what a regular job was like.”
Ina is describing a perfect sleight-of-hand. Good jobs transformed into bad jobs so deftly that hardly anyone notices the switcheroo when it happens. Soon the zombie jobs move among us as if they were normal. If you sense that there’s something missing, there must be something wrong with you.