waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

<.<

>.>

[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

***

These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

Advertisements

briefly, on getting used to very long commutes

For the past ten months, my day job has gotten me up at roughly 5 AM, on the road somewhere between 6.15 and 6.30 (or, umm, not, see also: morning, this) and in the office’s door before an 8 AM start.

At first, this was great! I love driving (when gas prices aren’t as prohibitive as they have been for the past ten years) and traveling and figured this would slay the avian wanderlust and provide opportunity to clear my head going in and coming back.

It was a lie–noble, but a lie nonetheless. And it worked for a while; it was great to be back amongst the gainfully-employed and I did indeed come to work focused and the drive home was cathartic.

When summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, that eager approach gave way to prolonged yawns, frustrated stumbles out of bed, and that 70-mile drive from point A to point B became familiar, boring and countered any sense that it could be a good thing.

I hate the drive to work now. I like what I do–moreover, I very much like the team I work with, and I very much like getting paid–but I’m up too early, here too long, go home too late and get to bed later than I should.

Then there are the beans. Those wild, weed-esque beans. I’ve missed so much in missing three hours a day to the road. They grow faster, miss me more, get that much more hyper when I get home and just want to breathe for a moment (and wife-mama needs to .)

Well, our circumstances are changing. We just had an offer accepted on our first home and in a few weeks, I’ll be roughly two-thirding my commute.

I spent a long lunch today signing roughly 1038945790183470985 pages of paperwork with our lender and celebrated the fact my hand didn’t fall off with one of those deliciously generic cheesesteak sandwiches at the nearby mall. Behind me, in between sizable bites of chicken teriyaki sandwich and malt vinegar-laden fresh fries, was a toddler and her mama. I overheard one of those sentences virginal to all save the parents of littles, something along the lines of, ‘Don’t eat that off the floor! That’s icky!’

I could hear wife-mama saying it. I could hear myself saying it. And I smiled, in the way only bittersweet parents who sacrifice far too much of their time for their families know how. I’ve missed so much of this, the insanity of child-rearing, the naive madness of children. Days of the month lost to the road.

I turned, and saw mother and child, seated at a tiny table, turned back to the doors and made my way back to my car, to the road, to work.

The sacrifice is worth it. For many reasons–for three, for one, for all of the above.

Even so, I miss my kids.

take your time: briefly, a case for limitless PTO

Earlier this year, Virgin Group announced a new policy allowing unlimited vacation time, or in the preferred current corporate nomenclature, paid time off. Virgin is likely the most prominent firm in the world to have moved to such a position, though they aren’t the first–a number of Silicon Valley companies have done something similar, including the very group whose subsidiary is the platform for this blog, Automattic.

Branson’s cache and prominence, though, is what caused a stir in culture: is it a good idea? More importantly, will it work?

The common reasoning is that if employees are permitted unlimited time off, then they’ll abuse the policy, productivity will slide and bottom lines will be undermined by a lazy workforce. Or something like that.

Based on the findings of companies researched by the Society of Human Resource Management, however, perhaps we ought to have a little more faith in our fellow humans.

First, unlimited paid time off, like representative democracy, works best with a virtuous workforce. Perhaps ‘virtuous’ is a loaded modifier, but it works. Unlimited PTO is not an invitation to not show up for work, but rather a sign that an employer trusts its workforce. To wit, why would an employer hire–or retain–someone she fundamentally doesn’t trust?

Decent people deserve to be treated decently, and that includes not hammering someone because he is undergoing treatment for a serious illness (FMLA provisions notwithstanding), or putting strictures on someone who has an opportunity to travel, study or otherwise pursue her interests or a charitable cause.

A company that holds an unlimited PTO policy and fails likely has far more serious issues than allowing its workers to take two weeks to fully recover from the flu.

Second, and not entirely unrelated to the first point, unlimited PTO demonstrates to a workforce that an employer is confident and capable in staffing his workplace. Frankly put, a person taking two weeks to vacate or two months for paternity leave should not mean that a company is then incapable of fulfilling its raison d’etre. Taking the caps off sick and vacation time should spur productivity, which reasonably should spur gross receipts, which reasonably should foster additional job growth. Companies moving toward this model are a classic example of the marketplace adapting to employee’s needs and increased desirability for potential future workers–the free market in action.

Third, in an era when work is increasingly virtual, what is the point of having banks of accumulated time-off hours? Certainly, not all work is virtual, but many people can do far more outside of a typical office than they ever could do before. The aforementioned worker recovering from the flu could theoretically take a few days and then telecommute for a few more until she’s back at full strength.

Fourth, it puts weight behind the clichéd and ultimately worthless phrase ‘work-life balance’. If an employer truly values his employees and their equilibria, he’ll do what is needed to make sure they’re in the best position possible to do the best job possible. That includes being generous and understanding, including (and especially) when people need time off.

People burn out if they’re pressed too hard for too long, and while it is important to maintain standards for performance and conduct in and around the workplace, it is not healthy to leave workers dreading to come back to work after falling ill, needing time to address family situations, having a child, moving to a new residence or seizing an opportunity that otherwise might not be available.

Finally, with great benefits comes great responsibility–some companies reported that those who work in an uncapped PTO environment actually use less time than those who feel like they have to use as much as they can before an arbitrary turning of the calendar resets the banks. Freedom, in workplace praxis, engenders loyalty. Arbitrary restraint, contempt. In this era of jobless recoveries and political and economic chicanery, good employees with great potential and/or track records of performance are worth keeping and taking the necessary measures to demonstrate mutual commitment.

umm…right?