New Normal: Living With a Pay Cut

salary cut

Tami Bartel describes her work as "a tough, lonely job under the best of circumstances."

She's a truck driver who works nights, puts in many miles a day and is often far away from home. But, until now, "it was one of the best ways I knew for a gal with no college degree to make a good living."

Then last fall, her hours started to get cut. Then her company slashed salaries 10 percent. Not only was she working less hours, but now she was making less money to do so.

Her monthly take-home pay went from about $3,200 to $2,300.

"I have had to make choices between eating and paying bills. Steak? It's a thing of the past. Grocery shopping? Only buying what I have to have, and buying that at a discount grocery chain that I never would have shopped before," Bartel said. "Sleep? No more peaceful slumber -- restless, disturbing dreams."

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And what about her plans to eventually retire?

Bartel hopes to just "pass in my sleep because right now I don't ever see that happening."

Since the recession started in December 2007, the American economy has shed 6 million jobs. Unemployment last month rose to 9.4 percent and is expected to soon top 10 percent. But those numbers don't tell the full story.

There are thousands of other workers who still have jobs but have had their salaries slashed 5 percent, 10 percent or even 20 percent. Others have been furloughed, forced to take a week or two off from work without pay. They might still be lucky enough to have a weekly paycheck but that check has shrunk, making it harder to survive.

"Frequently, people are being asked by their employers to take a little bit less money to keep everybody on the job. And we're seeing it in all kinds of places and circumstances," said Peter Morici, an economics professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. "It seems to be a prevalent practice in this recession and we didn't see it nearly as much in the past."

For some it might be working three or four days a week instead of five. For others it means a straight cut in their pay. (Morici himself has to take one week of unpaid leave.)

"The theme is always the same: if we don't do this, we're going to have to lay off the guy at the next desk. Or the guy at the next desk may be you," he said.

And this isn't just happening in America. This week, British Airways asked its 40,000 employees to volunteer for up to four weeks of unpaid work. The airline said the move comes as the airline is in a "fight for survival."

There are no detailed statistics about how many people are facing furloughs or pay cuts, but Morici estimates that the impact adds another percentage point or two to the nation's 9.4 percent unemployment rate.

But Morici is optimistic that the economy will recover and wages will rebound with it.

"When the economy recovers the next year," he said, "we'll see less of this because employees will start looking around as soon they have opportunities."

Bartel sure hopes so. She has worked in trucking for 30 years and said she has never seen it like this.

Last fall her company started cutting the number of days people were working. First four days became normal. Then some weeks it was three. Then the big cuts came: a suspension of the company's 401(k) contributions, a cut in accidental death and dismemberment benefits and a 10 percent pay reduction -- in addition to the lost hours.

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