• Dan Connors

Is the Gold Watch gone for good? The employer-employee relationship is broken.

There used to be a time when employers and employees trusted each other for the most part. Employees trusted the companies they worked for to provide them with steady work and pay, plus fringe benefits, and employers trusted their employees to show up, work hard, and be loyal. In the past fifty years this bond has been broken, mostly by employers, who have looked only after the bottom line of increased profits.

Now, according to a New York Times study of Amazon warehouse human resources policies, it looks like the employer of the future may want you out the door after just a few years on the job. Longtime employees, Amazon has found, expect to be paid more and their expanded knowledge of the company is a threat to management powers. Average time that workers spend at one company, or tenure, has been declining for decades and is down to 3.7 years for those at private employers. What happened to the workplace and how does the loss of continuity, community, and institutional knowledge affect us?

I once spent seventeen years at the same company, and for a long time it felt like home. We had a softball league, went to each other's weddings, and got to know each other very well. Customers appreciated the knowledge and expertise that we accumulated, but management eventually didn't. Leaving there was like leaving a part of myself.

Fifty years ago began something called the Great Uncoupling, when corporate profits kept rising but suddenly worker's salaries stagnated. Companies discovered a wide variety of new tricks to keep employee salaries (aka employer costs) down to maximize profit margins. Here is just a small list of anti-employee schemes that have gotten us to this point:

1- The decline of unions and their bargaining power. Unions are almost unheard of in the private sector today, and the loss of the threat of strikes or collaboration among employees lets employers able to set whatever policies they like.

2- The death of the fringe benefits. Health insurance and pensions used to be a huge reason that people stuck around with the same employer, often for life. Slowly but surely large companies have offloaded most of the costs of health care and retirement onto their employees, with high premiums being charged for insurance while voluntary 401k accounts replace much safer pensions.

3- The rise of service contractors. It used to be that all of the employees in a company worked for the company, but that is no more. Now it's common that many of the lower-paid service workers- janitors, security, cafeteria workers, and clerical workers are employed by an outside agency that contracts with the employer. You are in the same building, wear the same badges, but the salaries and benefits can be much worse, while the company avoids responsibility for the workers it chooses to utilize.

4- Gig work. Employers can avoid the expensive chores of paying employment taxes and fringe benefits by reclassifying its workers to be independent contractors. As of 2019 some 15% of all workers are classified this way, putting the entire burden of taxes and benefits onto those people, and up to 30% of American workers claimed to be self-employed for at least part of the year. Self-employed workers are usually unable to claim unemployment or workman's comp, and they are 100% responsible for paying estimated taxes throughout the year as well as retirement contributions and health insurance.

5- Fear. Employers have been able to use fear as a motivator much more than in past years when labor laws protected workers. They can lay off large numbers of workers at any time, and can threaten to replace them with robots or outsourced labor overseas. Because workers are more easily replaced and expendable, they can be bullied into lower pay and worse working conditions without much blowback.

Other anti-worker strategies include unpredictable schedules, paying for less than 40 hours to avoid other costs, excessive surveillance, isolation of workers, retaliation against workers who raise objections, and random firings.

Now back to Amazon. Turnover at their warehouses is 150% reportedly, meaning more people leave in a year than work there. Though the $15 per hour pay is higher than most unskilled workplaces, the long hours and physical demands are too much for many workers. Warehouse workers are kept in motion for most of their long shifts and monitored mercilessly by handheld devices that beep at them and encourage them to work faster. Some warehouses have pain-killer vending machines to keep their employees from breaking down.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has called long-term employment a "march to nowhere", because established employees eventually get lazy and entitled. Amazon stops giving raises after 3 years of employment and even offers bonuses to tenured employees to leave. The message is clear- they don't want workers hanging around or getting too attached.

Amazon has fought attempts by some of its workers to unionize, and kept its employees so isolated from each other that they can't socialize or organize in any fashion. Likewise, Amazon's HR department is mostly run by computers far away from the warehouses, and getting answers during Covid was almost impossible for many workers.

Just as the black plague turned the tables on the serf system and made work important again, so the Covid epidemic has also produced worker shortages. It's inspiring to get to see people actually having choices again and employers forced to change their business models, if only temporarily.

The sad truth is that your job and your workplace can never define you. If you are fortunate to have a good boss and a nice group of people to work around, consider yourself lucky. The bond between employer and employee has been severed in the pursuit of maximum profits. It's time to look harder at that pursuit of profit at all costs and what it has done to the workplace. Is it worth it?

There are three forces that I can see that could possibly counteract this march to disposable employees and make work meaningful again.

The first game-changer would be increased membership in labor unions. Unions produced enormous workplace improvement in the early 20th century, and they could do it again. Even the threat of a union is enough to get companies to take employees more seriously, as has happened with the failed union drive for Amazon in Alabama. If employers know that the people who work for them are divided and weak, they will try to pull more schemes like the ones above- and get away with them.

The second game-changer is government regulation, which has gotten a bad rap for the past fifty years, but regulations like overtime rules, the 40 hour workweek, minimum wage, and workers comp system give all employers a baseline of decent worker treatment. Companies compete, and if allowed to they will push the boundaries, but if those boundaries are set and recognized, they will work within them. In today's conservative pro-business environment such a change would require a sea change in voting, but it's possible if people get fed up enough.

And the final game-changer is workers themselves. Social media allows workers to organize off site and trade stories and strategies like never before. Rating sites like Glassdoor.com let workers vent and rate their jobs and employers as a warning to other prospective employees. Always try to check out a potential employer online and with your networks to see how they treat their employees, and don't put up with bad treatment anymore. We all deserve better. If enough people refuse to participate, employers will have no other options but improve. (or go 100% robotic) And as a consumer you're saying something about your values every time you spend your money, so spend it wisely and with companies that truly value their employees.

The workplace will change substantially in the coming years, and for most of us our work defines who we are. It's about time we start defining what our workplaces should be.

Here is the link to the Times article

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