JetBlue's Steven Slater isn't the only one: why more and more American workers are unhappy.

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 14 2010 7:06 AM

Take This Job and Shove It

JetBlue's Steven Slater isn't the only one: why more and more American workers are unhappy.

JetBlue terminal at JFK airport. Click image to expand.
JetBlue terminal at JFK airport

On Monday, Aug. 9, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater gave new meaning to the word "exit interview." Angered at the boorish behavior of a passenger, he picked up the intercom, loudly submitted his resignation, pulled the ripcord, grabbed two beers and slid down the escape chute.

The same day, a front-page Wall Street Journal article documented the plight of employers who were simply shocked that people weren't interested in the jobs they were offering. The aggrieved included a company in Illinois that wanted to pay skilled machinists a below-market $13 per hour (about $26,000 per year) and an airline based in Dubai that simply couldn't grasp why hordes of Americans weren't rushing to move halfway around the world and take up residence in a non-democratic emirate for the irresistible annual wage of … $30,000.

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For people of a certain age, such anecdotes might evince something like nostalgia. It was 1976, a time of similar economic difficulty, when stressed-out newscaster, Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, urged his viewers to stick their heads out the window and scream: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore." Two years after Network appeared in the movie theaters, Johnny Paycheck had a hit with the country song "Take This Job and Shove It."

It may seem odd that signs of employee dissatisfaction should emerge at a time of high unemployment, but it's hardly surprising. That is because the two phenomena—the poor labor market and the sour mood of many workers—are actually connected. Employees are sick and tired of tough conditions and lowball offers from prospective employers.

The economy has been growing for a year, and corporate profits have surged—Standard & Poor's estimates that profits of the constituents of the S&P 500 rose nearly 52 percent in the second quarter of 2010 from 2009. Much of that impressive profit growth has been driven by the remarkable gains in efficiency and productivity that corporate America has notched since the recession took hold. Last year, productivity—the ability to produce more with less—soared 3.5 percent, up from 1 percent in 2008 and 1.6 percent in 2007. Yes, companies embraced the Gospel of Cost Cutting with missionary zeal—printing on both sides of the paper, eliminating bottled water, turning off the lights. But most of the gains came straight out of payroll. Companies slashed salaries and curtailed benefits, all while asking shell-shocked veterans to pick up the slack for downsized colleagues. Even as business has picked up, companies have been extremely slow to hire; the private sector has added just 630,000 jobs so far this year. And when it comes to wages and benefits, corporate America's bean counters could make Scrooge blush. Many of the firms that slashed pay or cut 401(K) matches haven't restored them even though their balance sheets are in rude health.

Look, unemployment can be enormously stressful. But under today's conditions, employment can also get on your nerves. Steven Slater's cathartic meltdown came several hours before a government release signaled that companies have pushed workers about as far as they can go. For the past year, the U.S. economy has been prodding workers to do more, produce more, serve more, with each passing week, without much assistance, and without much of a raise. Over the past four quarters, BLS reported, "unit labor costs fell 2.8 percent as output per hour increased faster than hourly compensation." But when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the second-quarter productivity numbers on Tuesday, Aug. 10, the results were a little shocking. For the first time in several years, productivity actually fell—at a 0.9 percent annual rate. Workers put in more hours, but output didn't keep up. They simply can't run any faster.

Slater's self-ejection vividly illustrates the personal story behind the numbers. The last couple of years have been a golden era for employers. They've been able to hire whomever they want and pay them lower wages. But at some point, companies that want to grow will have to break down and hire new people, or turn part-timers into full-timers, or put contractors on the payroll. Many employers are treating existing and potential employees as if they're desperate for work. And plenty of Americans are. But desperate times can lead to desperate measures. Push your work force too hard without adequate reward, and someone might occasionally tell you to take this job and shove it.

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