Where Work Is Headed

Here are two items that you may have missed but that are clearly further indicators of the devaluation of workers.

First, some owners of McDonald’s franchises have started issuing pre-paid debit cards, instead of paychecks, to their employees. Clearly this practice is in some way saving the owners of the franchises some money, though I cannot tell you exactly how much money is being saved or exactly how this practice might be generating those savings. But, whatever those savings might be, it seems very unlikely that they would outweigh the psychological impact on the workers of being paid for their work with the equivalent of a retail gift card. Although the owners of these franchises may have rationalized that what they are doing is simply another permutation in the increasing reliance on digital banking to manage personal accounts, what they have conveyed to many of their employees is that their work is so undervalued that their employer can no longer be bothered even to cut a check to pay them.

Worse, these workers, who earn on average between $7.50 and $8.50 per hour, are being charged fees each time that they use the debit cards to access their weekly pay. Specifically, they are being charged $1.50 for each ATM withdrawal, $5 for each over-the-counter cash withdrawal, $1 for each balance inquiry, 75 cents for each online bill payment, and $15 to replace a lost/stolen card. (http://articles.philly.com/2013-06-17/news/40008232_1_debit-card-minimum-wage-fees). The whole thing seems to have been handled so off-handedly that some of the workers who accumulated those fees did not recognize until well after the fact how much the accumulating fees were cutting into their pay.

The second news item describes a practice that seems to me to be an extension of the corporate practice of transforming the liability of providing employee benefits into ways of generating new revenue streams. I have long thought that the nameless person who first conceived of replacing company-provided or company-supported pension plans with defined-contribution 401k plans, which initially were often then directed largely or wholly toward investments in the company’s own stock, must have been one of the most cynical bastards who ever lived.

Well, an extension of that kind of mind set is the new practice of allowing employees to purchase additional “vacation” or “personal” days. Some plans allow employees simply to sell their “vacation” or “personal” days to each other through a managed exchange. But other plans require employees to pay their employers directly for additional time off. Several writers who have addressed this practice in articles in in business periodicals have described it as “forward-thinking,” “cutting-edge,” and “progressive.”

It seems anything but those things to me.

Study after study has shown that Americans workers in all sectors receive much less “vacation” and “personal” time than their counterparts in all other developed nations. The whole concept of “sick time” has been largely banished from personnel policies. As employers increasingly eliminate healthcare benefits or shift the costs of those benefits to their employees, they also seem to have become more determined to treat employee illnesses as a “personal issue” rather than as a broadly predictable factor in any workplace. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that American workers often have good reasons for exceeding their allocated numbers of “personal” days, or that exceeding the permissible number of “personal” days is one of the most frequently cited reasons for dismissing employees. The idea that an employee might simply not be paid for days not worked that exceed their allocation of “personal” days has increasingly gotten squeezed out of the equation.

So what we have now is the option that an employee can purchase additional “personal” days. But if the employee is not being paid for the day off and is instead paying the employer what he or she might have earned for working that day, then clearly the employee will end up working another day for no compensation whatsoever in order to cover the cost of the day off.

I have done several very recent posts on the lengths to which mining companies have gone to simply stop paying retired miners’ pensions and healthcare benefits. In one of those posts, I described the process by which miners became, in effect, indentured laborers whose sons were often forced to assume their insurmountable debts to the companies that employed them.

Perhaps, we are all becoming miners now.

Perhaps these kinds of news items are the metaphorical equivalent of the canaries that coal miners used to take into the mines in little cages attached to their headgear. When the canaries stopped singing and slumped over in their little cages, their demises provided the miners with some minimal forewarning of dangerous concentrations of methane and other gasses.

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