Many Americans Working Harder For Less Unemployment continues to hover above 9 percent. But for the 90 percent of the U.S. workforce with jobs, the recession's impact on paychecks is a mixed bag. Fewer co-workers can mean more hours for some, but for others, a cut in pay or perks. Reporters Steven Greenhouse and magazine editor Lamar Graham discuss the state of the American paycheck.

Many Americans Working Harder For Less

Many Americans Working Harder For Less

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Unemployment continues to hover above 9 percent. But for the 90 percent of the U.S. workforce with jobs, the recession's impact on paychecks is a mixed bag. Fewer co-workers can mean more hours for some, but for others, a cut in pay or perks. Reporters Steven Greenhouse and magazine editor Lamar Graham discuss the state of the American paycheck.


Steven Greenhouse, labor correspondent, New York Times
Lamar Graham, executive editor, Parade Magazine


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

There are many ways to measure the impact of the recession on individual Americans. The clearest marker of economic pain is probably the unemployment rate, stuck at nearly 10 percent and unlikely to budge for some time.

But for the 90 percent of Americans in the workforce who still have a job, the economic downturn can often be measured another way, in their paycheck.

For some employees, as colleagues have been fired, the workday has become longer. For others, a job in the great recession has meant a career change or a detour, and with this can come a pay cut.

On this Labor Day, we want to know what's happened to your paycheck during the great recession. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, our email address And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, the buzz about the DEA's efforts to hire Ebonics translators. We'll talk with John McWhorter on The Opinion Page.

But first, the recession and your pay cut - pay check. Steven Greenhouse is labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times and the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." He joins us by phone from his home in New York. And thank you so much for working with us here on this holiday.

Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (Labor and Workplace Reporter, New York Times; Author, "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker"): My pleasure, my pleasure. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And also, for the last two decades, Parade magazine has conducted an annual look at American salaries and publishes the results in a series called "What People Earn." Since 2007, Lamar Graham has been the executive editor of Parade, and he joins us by phone from his office in New York. Thank you also for talking with us on this holiday.

Mr. LAMAR GRAHAM (Executive Editor, Parade): Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: So Lamar, let me ask you first. You've been at Parade for a decade, but you became executive editor just as the bottom was dropping out of the economy. How were the salary surveys you do, you know, in the first years different from what you see now?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, let me say first of all, that Parade's "What People Earn" issue, it's not a scientific survey, and I don't want to give anybody that impression.

When we came up with this idea about 20 years ago, it was about a recognition about economic voyeurism, if you will.

LUDDEN: We all want to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAHAM: Absolutely, absolutely. Salaries are the last taboo. People will tell you about their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, their sex life, their medical conditions. They won't tell you how much money they make.

And do, you know, our aim was to find Americans in all 50 states who would, and, you know, and put them in the magazine and get people talking. And so, you know, that's the context here.

But in 2007, in 2007, the issue that came out that year, we were starting to, you know, feel some of this, you know, that, you know, many people were kind of beginning to worry about their financial futures, and they didn't, you know, they weren't seeing the big raises they thought they would see because of the economic boom of the preceding years.

But, I mean, it was a much lighter time then. I mean, I was laughing here, earlier, as I was looking back at the issue, and we've got a headline that says: Are you working too hard? The happiest employees are those who have flexibility and control over how much they work.

You know, this year's main headline was: Americans are inventing new strategies to weather the recession, how we're making it work.

LUDDEN: And volunteering for all the overtime they can get, probably.

Mr. GRAHAM: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, one, we've got a feature in there, you know: Help me find a job. So, I mean, it's a vastly different vibe between 2007 and 2010.

LUDDEN: Are you seeing trends in certain professions, or was there some hot new profession that's kind of leveled off, or it doesn't seem to be the wave of the future anymore?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, you know, as I said earlier, it's not a scientific survey. So before I, you know, make any pronouncements, I want to make that clear. But, you know, anecdotally, I mean, I've had my hands in the innards of this issue for about 10 years.

And, you know, over the years, we had, you know, plenty of realtors who wanted to participate and show off their large salaries. Not so much this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAHAM: And, you know, one of the other interesting things was the research team that puts this together said that they've never had so many people drop out at the last minute.

You know, after the issue comes out, thousands of people email us and say they want to participate in next year's, and then we come to them and say hey, we want to put your picture in a magazine that reaches 70 million people with your name and your salary, you know, people get cold feet.

But this year, it was really overwhelming, and, you know, and a lot of the researchers told me anecdotally that people would say look, you know, my job's kind of tenuous. I don't need to be crowing about how much money I make.

LUDDEN: Wow, that is interesting.

Mr. GRAHAM: Yeah.

LUDDEN: That is interesting. Steven Greenhouse, can we turn bring you in here, and give us a sense of how this current recession is kind of fitting into a larger story about American wages.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Sure. So American wages over the past decade haven't been doing very well. The last time wages for a typical American really boomed was in the late 1990s during the high-tech boom and when unemployment was at its lowest level in 40, 50 years, down below four percent.

So, like, from 1995 to 1999, wages really boomed, and that was kind of unusual because in the previous two or three decades, median wages were flat. For men, wages, for the typical male worker, wages were actually declining over the previous two decades.

Now, with the unemployment now nearly 10 percent, that generally weakens the bargaining power for workers. And over the past year and a half, median wages, after-inflation wages for the typical worker have been absolutely flat.

And I think that's one of the reasons so many people are saying we need a lower unemployment, not just to put more people back to work, but to give more leverage, more bargaining power for workers to get higher wages.

If you're working somewhere and aren't happy with your salary, your chances of finding a better-paying job, you know, will increase of course when the economy picks up, when the unemployment rate drops. When there's more competition...

LUDDEN: So the economic...

Mr. GREENHOUSE: When businesses are hungrier to hire people.

LUDDEN: So the labor market sounds a lot like the housing market, in a way.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. When unemployment goes up, wages usually remain flat. And in this recession, in ways it's very different from the big recession, the last big recession in 1981, '82.

According to a study done by some professors at Northeastern University, you know, corporate profits have gone up nearly $400 billion since the beginning of the recession. But, you know, wages are only up about $70, $80 billion, and that's almost the exact reverse from the 1982, '82 recession, when the nation was recovering from recession, wages went up far more than profits.

LUDDEN: How could corporate profits have gone up $400 billion in the middle of a recession?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Well, I mean, the recession has been over now for a while. But, I mean, since the beginning of the recession until now, you know, corporations have been cutting costs. Banks have recovered very nicely, thank you.

I wrote a big story about corporations, even some corporations that are doing very well, that have, you know, cut wages for various workers. You know, there's a big story last week. The Kaiser Foundation found that, you know, that companies were pushing upon workers the costs of increased health care coverage and that, you know, companies are actually paying less for health care coverage than they had been and are foisting all the increased costs on workers.

So that makes it harder for workers. At the same time, it actually ends up helping increase the corporate bottom line.

LUDDEN: Is this something that companies just didn't do in the recession of the early '80s, or were there other things at play there?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: They did that somewhat, but I think, you know, companies have gotten, you know, one might use the word tougher. One might use the word more sophisticated.

You know, I think their you know, unions are much weaker now. Companies far more have the option of, you know, moving jobs to China or India or elsewhere. I think that's caused made it harder for American workers to, you know, demand raises.

Another thing that's been happening, Jennifer, is that I think companies realize that, you know, they could lay off five percent of their people and kind of push their current workforce harder to, you know, do the same amount of work as when they had even more people.

LUDDEN: Let's we already have a lot of callers on the line. Let's go to one now. John(ph) is in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, how are you? Hi, everybody. I wanted to say hello, thank you for the opportunity to, you know, let me talk about let me just give you a little chronological, real quick, sense of how a modern immigrant, in this case it's me, have suffered the consequences of all kinds of changes in the United States.

I first came here in 1987, barely knew how to speak English, worked in a factory in New Jersey making $6.50 an hour building air ducts.

LUDDEN: $6.50.

JOHN: Come again?

LUDDEN: You said $6.50 an hour?

JOHN: $6.50 in 1987, correct.


JOHN: The economy, as I remember, was just getting normal. It had just gotten out of the '80s, and Ronald Reagan was still on, and things were, you know, just again, I was new. I had no idea what was going on.

Worked my way up for a couple of years, and eventually started working slowly into the office, the clerical system, which I excel into it. Learn all the, of course, the computers, and the software boom came in the '90s, like the gentleman say, one of your guests.

And I was right in the middle of it, excelled right into it, learned all the new excelled into the clerical, clerical in software booming and computers, where I worked about, got about 10 years' worth in that, got to be making about $60,000 at a company.

Was doing great. I had two BMWs, house.

LUDDEN: Bring us up to the present here, John. What's so that's where you were at the recession?

JOHN: Well, running real quick. Came after the (unintelligible) 9/11 in that second so-called re-election for Bush. Things just slowly started slowing down. And between that and who knows what, all of a sudden, I found myself...

By the way, I got a helicopter certificate. So I just kept excelling, excelling, and I ran a little airport. And this is three years of what I was running a little airport. And now I am just simply driving a car, making 7.50.

LUDDEN: Wow, almost back to where you started.

JOHN: Excel myself from all the things, and I'm making 7.50. I just to want to give you an idea of what the modern immigrant is going now.

LUDDEN: That's a big cut there. John, thanks so much for calling.

JOHN: I thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. We are talking about what's happened to your paycheck during the great recession, and we will get some more of your calls in a moment. You can call us at 1-800-989-8255. Or send us an email. That address is

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

This Labor Day, even more than in years past, the focus is squarely on jobs: finding one or keeping one. Even for many workers who have hung onto their jobs, the recession that began in 2007 meant cuts in pay or benefits.

So tell us: What's happened to your paycheck during the great recession? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, and Lamar Graham, executive editor of Parade magazine, which puts out its annual What People Earn report.

Lamar, could I ask you: Are you seeing certain jobs being hit the hardest in this recession, either in terms of layoffs or pay cuts?

Mr. GRAHAM: Hit the hardest, you know, I don't know if I could put my finger on any particular category. As I said earlier, I think, like, you know, realtors have had a really tough time, you know, over the time that I've been working on the issue. Like I said, we just didn't see nearly as many this year, and the salaries they were making were, you know, modest by comparison to what they were making a few years ago.

I can say that, you know, on the other end of things that certain sectors seem to be holding a little bit, especially the medical-allied professions: pharmacy and pharmacy tech. Those jobs still seem to be there. And nurses, you know, we still seem to see those, you know, those kind of people participating in steady numbers and their salaries, you know, steady or going up a little.

LUDDEN: Steven Greenhouse, I've got here something the Economic Policy Institute put out using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, looking at the highest, fastest-growing jobs, job and growth in wage from May 2006 to 2009. And just as Lamar said, their health industry figure is pretty big. Number one: home health aide. Then you've got food preparation, warehouse stock clerk, then medical assistant and registered nurse. All but the last, all but the nurse, seems to be pretty low-wage work there.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: You know, for years, the Labor Department in predicting, you know, what would be the fastest-growing jobs over the next decade, like seven out of 10 or six out of 10 of those jobs are very low-paying: home health aide, supermarket cashier, you know, stocker.

And one of the unfortunate things going on now in the, you know, in the recession and weak recovery is that a lot of the jobs in the middle, you know, the middle manager, the secretary, you know, jobs that paid $30, $40, $50, $60,000 a year, seem to be disappearing. And there seems to be strong growth in jobs that strong is the wrong word, but you know, where there's growth, there seems to be more growth at the bottom and more growth at the top.

So unfortunately what's been happening, similar with what was happening to John of Hawaii, people had jobs, you know, he had a nice job making $60,000 a year driving his two BMWs I wish I could afford a BMW and now he's making $7.50 an hour.

And unfortunately, you know, the economy is so weak, and there's so much turnover and so many layoffs that a lot of people are tumbling down the career ladder and going from jobs making $50, $60, $70,000 to often half that.

I read a recent story about people returning to school for continuing education to improve their career prospects, and I wrote about some laid-off white-collar workers who worked for Detroit's Big Three. And they knew they weren't going to work, you know, in the auto industry anymore.

And some went back to study to be certified nursing assistants for just $10 an hour, figuring that once they start there, they'll then study to become nurses and hopefully make, you know, $50,000 or $70,000 again. So there's a lot of turbulence in the job market right now.

Mr. GRAHAM: I would say that we found that, too, particularly in terms of, like, part-time employment. You know, in past years, we didn't include part-timers in the survey because we had so many full-time folks to choose from that we would say let's compare apples to apples. But so many of the people that we spoke with in the 2010 issue were working part-time that we decided, you know, we needed to include them.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: I think Lamar is exactly right. You know, there are two ways that people, or three ways that people are losing income. One is just to be laid off period. Two is, you know, some people are having to swallow three percent or five percent pay cuts. We're seeing that you know, a lot of cities and counties are demanding pay cuts right now. And the third issue is the one Lamar is talking about that, you know, when you were working full time, 40 hours a week, and you made, you often made pretty good money. But if they cut you back to 30 hours or 20 hours a week, you might be paid the same amount per hour, but your total pay is going to be cut, you know, by a quarter or half because you're working so many fewer hours. And that's stressing out a lot of families.

And at the same time, you know, a lot of families are suffering from, you know, cuts in income when, you know, they have a laid-off brother or son who graduated from college and can't find a job and moving back in. So you have families that have lower income, and at the same time, they have to support more individuals in the household.

LUDDEN: Right. Let's bring another listening into the conversation. Scott(ph), you're in West Palm Beach, Florida. Hi there.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes, hi, good afternoon. I just wanted to state, I kind of feel like I'm living in a constant state of economic paranoia. I've managed to keep my job over, you know, since the recession started.

Income has been steady. I can't say there's been any big ups or downs in it. But I'm in a constant fear of when is the other shoe going to drop. I mentioned to someone before, my brother had to move to Missouri from Florida for work. I'm older. I'm in the early 50s. And I've got this huge concern is when is the bottom going to fall out. And I don't like living in that state. I didn't basically - go ahead.

LUDDEN: So you're not asking for a raise these days.

SCOTT: No, no. I mean, today's Labor Day, and I'm driving home from work.

LUDDEN: Did you get overtime?

SCOTT: I don't ever say no, and I don't turn down overtime, not that I ever would have done that before. But it's a fear. There's a fear of I live in South Florida. Our house prices have dropped. And it's a fear. And I never, I don't remember that in my life. And that's how I feel now.

I mean, we're still in a blessed country, but you don't know, at least, you know, in my view, when's the bottom going to fall out, or is it going to fall out even farther.

LUDDEN: All right, Scott, well, thank you so much for calling.

SCOTT: All right, thanks.

LUDDEN: Let's go to another caller. William(ph) is in Orlando. We have a lot of Florida calls today. Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Tell us your situation.

WILLIAM: It's a little rough right now. To be succinct, I was earning close to $50,000 a year about three years ago. I'm in my mid 50s, and I was laid off from my job, or down-sized, you might say, gone through a couple of job changes since then, and nothing had worked out.

And currently, I'm earning minimum wage as a temporary worker driving a car at an auto auction here in Orlando. What's more interesting is I was finally able to land a job with a very good management company here at the local airport managing a restaurant there. They were just beginning to open.

And part of the procedure of getting that job was applying for security access. Unfortunately, the authority, the airport authority who took my application conveniently lost it, and the company that was offering me the position had to move on because of the expediency required to fill that position to open the restaurant.

LUDDEN: Oh dear.

WILLIAM: So I lost a very good job because of government bureaucracy.

LUDDEN: Sorry for that. Sorry for that. Well, what's your long-term thinking? I mean, are you hopeful that things will turn around, or are you completely changing your career plans?

WILLIAM: Well, I can't afford to change my career plans. I enjoy the industry that I'm in. And I'm always hopeful and always optimistic, contrary to my upbringing. My father was a consummate pessimist, but he was a very successful man. But so I kind of learned a few lessons from him.

But I'm hopeful. The Orlando area has a lot of opportunity here. It just hasn't turned around yet. But Florida, unfortunately, especially Central Florida has a somewhat significantly higher unemployment rate than the national average. I think we're closing on 12 percent right now.

LUDDEN: All right, well, William, thanks for the call.

WILLIAM: I appreciate your time, and thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: We've got an email here that speaks to maybe some of the anger that we have been hearing here as the, you know, debate, public debate during this recession.

Jason(ph) writes: It seems to me the CEOs are not hurting. To me, it's just a way for them to get richer and us to get poorer. The big lie is that it's because of so-called pressure from overseas. Soon, there will not be a middle class.

Steven Greenhouse, why is the middle kind of dropping out, and we see growth at the bottom and the top? I mean, it makes me think of the loss of manufacturing. Is there more to it?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: I think part of it is that, Jennifer. Part of it is that a lot of, you know, we heard, you know, John of Hawaii talking about losing his software job. I think a lot of good, you know, middle-class, upper-middle-class software jobs and accounting jobs and design jobs that used to be done in the U.S. are increasingly moving to India.

You know, my newspaper had a story recently about law jobs, you know, moving to India. And, you know, computers have replaced the jobs of secretaries, many secretaries and many accountants and many bookkeepers.

And a lot of, you know, jobs in the middle, a lot of good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared. A lot of construction jobs have disappeared recently because of the housing burst. And, you know, a lot of the new jobs we're seeing are service-sector jobs that, you know, can't be sent overseas. And we have a fast-growing aging population, so we need more homecare aides and we need more nursing home aides, and we see a lot of - you know, there's a big demand for security guards, and, you know, there are all these people working in nail salons and hair salons. And these generally aren't jobs that pay very, very well.

LUDDEN: Right. Let's go to Andrea in Berkeley, California. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: I'm good. Now, I'm reading you're a young OB-GYN, which is something we think of as very lucrative and a good stable field to go into, no?

ANDREA: You would think so. When I went into medicine, all odds were that it was recession-proof. I graduated in 1997 from a good university, and I don't like to toot my own horn, but I'm a very good physician. I have plenty of work. The problem is getting paid for it. I work about 80 to 90 hours a week, and my total salary last year, take-home salary, was $56,000. I read it all over the place that doctors are making, you know, six-figure salaries, but I don't know any of them.


ANDREA: And a lot of solo practitioners are going out of business because we cannot unite in any kind of union to fight the insurance companies. So, for instance, an annual gynecology exam gets paid $45 by Medicare, and the guy down the street who does my smog check gets 70 bucks to stick his little thing in my tailpipe there. And all of the expectations have been upended in this recession.

I've been working since I was 15. I have a very strong work ethic. I love my job, but I think I had every right to expect that I could be paying my bills at this point in my life. And I really admire Obama for taking on the insurance companies and the other big corporations, but I guess I just want everybody to know that, you know, I'm sitting outside the hospital today about to go make rounds, and I've talked to the nurses. They all make more money than me.

LUDDEN: Oh, my goodness.

ANDREA: They get breaks. They get benefits. They get vacation time. And I want everybody to know that if this continues, there aren't going to be solo practitioners for people to visit. Everyone's going to be going to a clinic.

LUDDEN: Wow. Andrea, thank you for your...

ANDREA: And if you look at The Wall Street Journal, you can see that about 20 percent of solo practitioners went out of business last year.


ANDREA: And it's because we can't negotiate with the insurance company. Only groups can. Solo practitioners cannot. And I have a mole in a group that's in my town, and the people in the group can negotiate six to eight times the amount of money for the same exact service.


ANDREA: I just want everybody to know, you know, what's going on. This is something I don't think is being covered at all.

LUDDEN: Right. It's a bit of - not just the economy, but you've got a lot of changes in the health care industry there going on. Andrea, thank you for the call.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Lamar Graham, if - we looked at your latest survey there at Parade magazine of what people earn. You know, if you can't make it big as a doctor these days - what was the top earner in your latest survey?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, the very top earner - and, you know, we chose some of these for serendipity and for fun - but Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. And we calculated his earnings in 2009 at about $3 billion. So he was stratospheric. You know, also up there, you know, don't cry for Tiger Woods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAHAM: He made 110 million bucks. And John Stumpf, the CEO of Wells Fargo, made 18.7 million. Ellen DeGeneres was our biggest - one of our biggest entertainment figures, anyway: 35 million. And Glenn Beck made 23 million.

LUDDEN: And that was before his big exposure down on the Mall, right?

Mr. GRAHAM: Right. Now, in terms of, you know, ordinary people, I thought one of the most interesting in this year's survey was a guy in North Dakota who is a motel operator. And there's a massive boom in the petroleum biz going on up there, and workers flooding in from everywhere with no place to stay. And he made $440,000 operating a motel in North Dakota. So I was - you know, that was one that I was, you know, was very taken by.

LUDDEN: Oh, you never know there.

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, you know, and we also have a person who described himself as a professional sports handicapper - I'll, you know, leave it to you to decide what that means - who made $1.3 million. And maybe at the other end of the scale, we had a medical marijuana provider in Oregon who made only $17,000. Maybe, I shouldn't say only, but who made $17,000.

LUDDEN: All right, well, we've got an email here from Mary from Oakland. She works at a university, she says, and for the past three years, has received no salary increase. Last year, I took a mandatory 8 percent salary cut. My workload has significantly increased, and I am working longer hours for much less money.

Steven Greenhouse, what - you know, looking ahead, I mean, for young people graduating today and starting out on their careers, how is this all going to impact them over the course of their career?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's really a tough time to be entering the job market right out of college or right out of high school. And, you know, there have been studies done showing that if you enter the job market when unemployment's high, during a recession, you're going to start at lower salaries, and it's going to be very hard for you to catch up to people, you know, a few years older than you who, you know, started - went into the job market when the economy was booming. And it's hard to say what people should do. You know, improve your skills as much as possible, try to pursue fields that are very marketable, like becoming a nurse or teaching science, which is - or becoming a quant and do, you know, great analytical math for the Googles and Facebooks.

You know, Lamar's survey is extremely helpful. It's not just voyeuristic, but it really is also very informative in seeing, you know, what are good fields to pursue and what are not such good fields to pursue.

LUDDEN: All right. I think we have to leave it there. Steven Greenhouse is a labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. Lamar Graham is executive editor of Parade Magazine. Thank you so much, both of you, for joining us. Coming up...

Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's nice to be here. Thanks.

LUDDEN:, the DEA wants to hire Ebonics translators. Is that a great idea or a terrible precedent? John McWhorter joins us on the Opinion Page. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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