Shaming the Corporate Cheapskates

July 15th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

Buried among the many features of the financial reform bill passed by Congress is a provision that could get you a raise. For this to happen, however, you have to work for a large company that is uncomfortable with having it made public how little it pays its workers.

Section 953 of the Dodd-Frank bill deals with disclosures relating to executive compensation, not only at banks but at all publicly traded companies. One of the ways it seeks to rein in out-of-control CEO pay is by requiring firms to reveal how the amount paid to the head of the company compares to that received by the typical employee. The theory is that having this information made public would give pause to grasping CEOs and soft-touch board compensation committees.

The total compensation of chief executives (along with that of the four other highest paid executives) is already disclosed through the annual proxy statements companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (which makes them public through the EDGAR online system, where the documents are designated as DEF 14A). Yet there have been no requirements relating to the disclosure of how much is paid to the CEO’s underlings.

Section 953 fills this gap by instructing companies to include in their future proxies the median of the annual total compensation paid to all employees apart from the CEO. They also have to calculate the ratio of that median to the CEO’s total bounty.

Those ratios will be fascinating to see, but just as interesting will be the figures on non-CEO pay themselves. For the first time, we will be able to make direct comparisons of the broad compensation practices of different companies within given industries or across sectors. Getting official data from the companies themselves will be an improvement on the selective information that now gets posted on websites such as Glass Door.

There will be limitations, of course. Congress should have required the disclosure of data specifically on hourly workers rather than lumping them in with higher-paid professionals and executives. It would also be preferable to have separate numbers on domestic and foreign employees. And it is likely that companies will exclude low-paid temps and (often misclassified) independent contractors in making their calculations.

Yet this information could still be put to good use. Having clear, company-specific data could help stimulate a much-needed movement to address the problem of wage stagnation in the United States. The reality of that stagnation is quite evident from overall labor market data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it would be much more effective to point the finger at individual companies with low medians and seek to shame them for failing to provide adequate compensation to their workers.

The ability of employers to keep wages low stems from two classic sources: low unionization and high unemployment. We know all too well the story of how anti-union animus on the part of employers has pushed the percentage of private sector workers with collective bargaining protections to historic postwar lows. To the extent they are able, unions target individual companies such as Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and (until it was finally organized) Smithfield Foods for denying their workers the right to representation.

Unions and other advocacy groups also criticize specific companies that engage in mass layoffs, especially when they seem to be undertaken mainly to impress Wall Street.

Yet we rarely hear criticisms of particular companies for failing to hire new workers when conditions seem to warrant it. The “economy” is assumed to be to blame for the high levels of joblessness afflicting us, not deliberate decisions by corporations to keep their payrolls artificially lean. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the absurd argument that overregulation is responsible for the anemic hiring situation. The Obama Administration responded by saying that weak consumer demand is the cause. Absent is the idea that corporations are failing in their responsibilities.

The unwillingness to chastise corporations is all the more bewildering in the face of growing evidence that business is hoarding cash instead of investing in job-creating ways. A front-page story in the Washington Post headlined COMPANIES PILE UP CASH BUT REMAIN HESITANT TO ADD JOBS notes that U.S. nonfinancial companies, buoyed by rising profits, are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in liquid reserves.

Why is there not more of an outcry about this behavior? Here’s an idea: pick companies with the most egregious combinations of rising profits and falling payrolls and press them to justify their boycott of U.S. workers. Once the new disclosure requirement kicks in, they could also be pushed to explain their low compensation levels. Business needs a strong reminder that it also exists to provide opportunities for people to earn a living.

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