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.

"Everything was down to bare bones," Bartel said. "I have never known a time when a driver couldn't walk out the door one day and have a job somewhere the next. That isn't happening anymore."

Bartel has given up on saving for her retirement and is just praying every day to see a rebound "because I have run out of notches to tighten the belt."

"I can't afford to put anything away. I can't afford to live," she said.

But like many others in her situation, she is thankful to still be employed.

"I'm complaining, but I'm not. I thank god every single night that I still have a job and I still have a roof over my head. But it gets a little frightening," Bartel said. "I'm 50 years old. I haven't had to worry about this kind of thing since I was in my 20s. And I'm not alone there."

Michael Santus tells a similar story.

He is the finance manager at a classic and exotic car dealership. His first two years on the job, everybody kept talking about a new sales record that broke. Then the recession hit.

"We had a general manager who just walked into my office one day and said: We're cutting back and we need to reduce your salary by $1,000 a month and if that doesn't work, we understand and you don't have to work for us anymore," Santus recalls.

Like that, his salary went from $56,000 a year to $44,000.

"I'm actively perusing other options," Santus said. But in this economy that is easier said than done.

Luckily his partner Andrew Littorno got promoted and the couple now leans more heavily on his $78,000 salary. But still there are sacrifices: less money going towards retirement, smaller Christmas gifts and no more occasional splurges on things like iPhones.

When the pay cut happened, "we [had] just built a new house and bought a new car and done some other things," Santus said. "That has really sort of curtailed a lot of savings. That $1,000 was really earmarked to go into savings every month. That sort of has just not happened."

Still, Santus is very thankful to have a job.

"It's almost like the pool of jobs have dried up," he said.

Justine Ketola also saw her paycheck get slashed.

She is a freelance publicist and marketing professional. For the last four years, about a third of her salary has come from doing publicity and advertising work for a three-day music festival.

This year, it took longer than usual to negotiate her fee.

"It took them a really long time to commit to their budget," Ketola said.

In the end, she got a third less in pay than past year -- about $2,500 less. The event organizers were worried that their ticket sales aren't going to be what they were in the past.

But by that point, Ketola needed the job and had no choice but to accept the lower fee.

"I felt very against the wall. I felt very cheated," she said. "I was very upset, very betrayed."

Today she is struggling with credit card payments, has downgraded the type of gas she uses, put off buying a new digital camera and has cashed out her $8,000 IRA retirement account to pay bills.

"I jokingly say," she added, "at least I'm freelance."

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