Labor Day 2016 marks another year when the average U.S. worker is putting in more time on the job for less pay, and spending less leisure time with the family.

White collar employees often work a 9 to7 job, for the same paycheck they received over the past several years, while also paying more out of pocket for health insurance. Blue collar and retail workers are stuck with erratic schedules and a lack of basic benefits.

Across the spectrum of the American workforce, many workers are now doing two jobs for the same pay they received in the past. It’s called “hyper-efficiency.” A company cuts back and cuts back to the point where the remaining employees are covering the duties of two or three jobs. Quality suffers. Quantity may slip a bit. But the company keeps revenues even, reduces expenses dramatically, and boosts profits in a way that previously was deemed unacceptable.

One survey found that more than half of all workers said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus.

The tipping point in this sea change was the Great Recession of 2009-10, according news reports by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and Mother Jones about the state of the American worker.

What follows is a random summary – snippets, if you will – of what these reports found.

Productivity up, jobs down

The statistics show that the recession was actually a prosperous development for many companies that discovered the benefits of hyper-efficiency:

US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.

New buzzwords for a new economy

Downsizing is a buzzword of the 21st Century but it was barely part of the American lexicon as recently as the 1980s, when layoffs were almost always temporary and concessions were a place at the ballpark where people bought a beer and a hot dog.

In the current economy, we have a number of new buzzwords that explain the sad state of working America.

Offloading – This is the process practiced by countless companies of dumping workers by the thousands, even when revenues are steady, to increase the bottom line. Some data indicates that offloading caused more U.S. job losses in recent years than offshoring, the practice of shifting work overseas.

Digital overtime – This refers to the new expectations of white collar workers — sometimes even office assistants and secretaries – to keep in touch with their bosses at all times via texts and emails. One survey of workers found: one-fourth are expected to respond to work email when they’re not at work; half check work email on the weekends and on sick days; and one-third check work email while on vacation.

Multitasking – This is the typical office practice of working on your computer while discussing on the phone and eating a sandwich. Research shows that multitasking usually results in all the tasks involved being done poorly. The three-hands approach is especially prevalent among single moms who may be taking care of business at work while communicating with their child care center or veterinarian. This also includes staring at your phone, instead of watching the on-field activities, at your son’s soccer game. Or texting with that co-worker who is part of your project team while also helping your daughter with homework.

New era not good for workers

As for the low jobforce participation rates of recent years, one economist points out that in the past businesses would hold on to workers in downturns even when there wasn’t enough for them to do – some manufacturers would even put them to work painting the factory — because companies did not want to see their skilled, experienced workers drift away and then have to go through the expense and loss of training new ones. That era is over. These days firms take advantage of downturns to squeeze the most out of a shrunken workforce and increase labor productivity. The workers are told that this is all necessary to keep a healthy bottom line.

When business picks up, the number of workers remains fairly stagnant – while pay and benefits lag – and the company’s profits rise quickly.

U.S. lags behind rest of the world

Mother Jones, relying on an array of data, has put together maps and charts and graphs to demonstrate the plight of the American worker. Some of these are rather shocking, especially maps that show workers across the world, even in Africa, receive time-off benefits that don’t exist in the U.S.

Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time (PDF), and paid maternity leave. The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland.

Dog-eat-dog world

In the American workplace of 2016, a master chef, desperate to keep up with the competition, puts in extra hours replacing the tile floor in his restaurant kitchen. A college professor – a once idyllic profession focused on teaching a few classes on a quaint campus while spending time writing or researching a favorite topic – now often faces a dog-eat-dog world among the faculty.

One professor who is struggling to make a living as he is now labeled “part time” describes the atmosphere on his campus:

My employer uses and abuses full-time employees even more so than those of us that are hourly (part time). My supervisor, for example, runs a large department. He was just promoted to a new, even more demanding position, but his position running the department will not be filled. He will now be doing what is a 60-to-70-hour job ‘on the side.’ I can’t complain of overwork, because everyone is competing to get enough classes to pay the bills. If you lose a class, you lose a chunk of your paycheck. If we can’t handle it, the class can always be given to another teacher who will be desperate for the work or money.

Tough times – time for a new countertop

Some economists say that the surest way to determine the strength of the consumer economy is to keep tabs on stores like Home Depot and Lowes. When homeowners are ready to spend on everything from backyard patios to landscaping to a revamped kitchen, they have a stable outlook about the economy.

Stable, in this case, often means that a worker’s stagnant paycheck is stretched in order to go further into debt. It’s like buying yourself a gift that you know you can’t afford.

The irony here, of course, is that people are spending less and less time at home while pouring money into home improvements. Usually these additions or renovations are paid for with a credit card.

Sure, I’m working crazy hours and our pension fund is history, but check out my granite countertop!

No stable work schedule

The number of families living paycheck-to-paycheck is on the rise. Many people who lost well-paying jobs during the recession have found work, but for less money, doing hourly retail and food services jobs. Many of these positions, including low-level factory work, do not offer steady hours or predictable work schedules.

A study done at the University of California-Davis found that this is a new trend, according to co-author and assistant professor Ryan Finnigan:

These new hourly workers not only make less money, but they have much less predictable schedules than hourly workers had before the recession, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis. “The jobs replacing the ones that were lost after the recession ended were a lot of low-wage hourly jobs with really variable schedules,” said Ryan Finnigan, an assistant professor at U.C. Davis and one of the researchers who worked on the study.

Workers in these new economy jobs might work 38 hours one week and 15 the next. “Even though unemployment has sunk down, the quality of the jobs that replaced the ones that were lost were not quite the same,” Finnigan added.

Time to push the kids harder

One more aspect of this 2016 world in which people feel constantly squeezed for time centers on the vast changes in the culture of extra-curricular activities for K-12 students. Parents, coaches and instructors are pushing kids harder and harder, for many hours at a time, to excel in their chosen field of sports or music or theater. The result is that parents and students have far less leisure time than their predecessors of decades ago.

Thirty-plus years ago the phrase “hockey moms” was born as a tribute to those parents who drove their kids from rink to rink – and stuck around – for hockey practices and games. This devotion often lasted for many years and kids who played in “travel leagues” would crisscross the state each weekend.

Now, we have hockey moms, soccer moms, gymnastics moms, etc. The time devoted to prep sports is extraordinary. Little League baseball practice now starts for some kids in February inside a dome. The move toward year-round practice extends to everything from marching band to karate to swimming.

Whether this game of great expectations, this endless drive for improvement, foisted on our kids is healthy remains questionable. But the next generation of corporations and employers will gladly take advantage of it when these kids enter the workforce.

Photo illustration: Wikimedia

Chad Selweski
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Copyright 2016 The Moderate Voice