The Employees' 2006 Bill of Slights

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

No, tell us how you really feel.

This Labor Day, workers are saying their biggest work problems are mostly economic. Their pay is not keeping up with increasing health-care costs or other increases in living expenses. They are disgruntled enough to look for work on the job. Retirement "security" isn't secure.

These issues and more -- so many more -- are major concerns, show several surveys done just in time for Labor Day.

"Three years ago, workers told us they felt overworked, but they were patient. They realized the economy was getting better and they would share in the wealth ultimately," said Stuart Itkin, vice president of marketing for Kronos Inc., a workforce management company that did a study about workers' feelings this Labor Day. "Last year, the work improved, but they are mad as hell. Their paychecks are no better."

According to the Kronos survey, conducted by Harris Interactive as an online poll without using a random sample, 61 percent of employed adults say they are not experiencing the benefits of an improved economy in their work lives, a four-percentage-point increase from last year's survey.

And there are consequences to that: Fifty-eight percent of workers may leave their employer if the economy continues to improve -- that's up 12 percentage points from the 2005 study. Meanwhile, 74 percent say they are actively or passively looking for a new job, and 41 percent of those 'fessed up to looking for a new job while at work, up from 39 percent last year.

No wonder workers are feeling the pain: Inflation is running at an annual rate of 4.8 percent so far this year, higher than any yearly increase since 1991. But wages are not increasing at the same rate, according to a Labor Department report released last month. Average weekly earnings fell 0.1 percent in July and bought 0.1 percent less in July than a year earlier.

Itkin said a lot of the blame lies in the fact that employees believe that they working hard but are underappreciated. Eighty percent of respondents indicated they wanted to be appreciated, yet only 36 percent thought their employers appreciated them.

In a separate report, almost all (97 percent) of the 23,000 or so female workers who chose to respond to an online survey said they were most concerned about not being able to afford health care, according to "Ask a Working Woman," a survey by the AFL-CIO and Working America, its affiliate.

Many think chief executive pay should be limited when workers are losing benefits or being laid off (48 percent), and nine out of 10 participants said they were more worried and concerned about the future of young people going into the workforce than they were hopeful and confident.

Grim news on this last day of summer freedom, indeed.

Take Meagan Jeronimo, 27, one of the survey participants. She made her mark on Washington several years ago when she founded an Internet community for the area's many working moms.

Last year, Jeronimo, her husband and her son moved to Houston to be near her parents for support and for the lower cost of living. In looking for a job as a legal secretary, Jeronimo considered three offers. Two of the firms wanted $600 a month for health care. Jeronimo knew that would not be possible, so she took the job where health insurance for her family cost $223.60 per month for medical and $25 per month for dental. When she was in Washington, she paid $80 per month for medical, dental and vision for herself and Brian, her 3-year-old. Her husband, Edvin, paid about $25 per month for individual coverage.

And now her brand-name medications are $40 while generics cost her $25. Just two or three years ago, she said, it cost her $25 for brand-name medications and $10 for generic.

She is a college graduate who makes about $54,000 a year, and her husband is a trained chef. They thought they were solidly middle class. But it doesn't feel that way anymore.

First, they moved the week Katrina hit. A job as a chef became a rarity when hundreds of thousands of people were looking for work. And so Jeronimo's husband signed up for truck-driving school. While he was working through class, they lived on Jeronimo's salary and benefits. But then she got sick. In addition, her son is an asthmatic. She now spends $360 a month for prescriptions for them both and had to pay $3,000 for her own medical bills this year, despite having health coverage.

"I was reading these people's comments on this survey who were saying, 'We have great jobs but we're just one tragedy away from disaster,' " she said. And she felt that was what had happened to her family. One sickness, and she was barely able to make ends meet. Together, she and her husband now earn about $75,000.

According to another Labor Day report, this one a scientific random-sample survey released last week by the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of all workers are unhappy with health insurance benefits (27 percent), their retirement plan (28 percent), the amount of money they earn (24 percent) and the level of their job stress (27 percent).

The reason so many are unhappy with health coverage is because, as is the case with Jeronimo, it has become unaffordable for many. Premiums increased an average of 9.2 percent in 2005, down from the 11.2 percent average in 2004, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The 2005 increase ended four consecutive years of double-digit increases, but the rate of growth is still more than three times the growth in workers' earnings (2.7 percent), the report said. Since 2000, premiums have gone up 73 percent.

That Jeronimo's husband is now a driver also means he is on the road most days, so she has to take time off when her son is sick.

Still, she considers herself "lucky" because her employer allowed her, in her first year of service, to use vacation and sick leave so she could stay home when her son was sick or go to her own doctor's appointments.

"They've been nothing but supportive," she said.

Well, it's all something that the 42 percent of you who expect to be at work this holiday, according to the Kronos survey, can ponder on Monday.

Happy Labor Day.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com. Listen to Amy every Monday at 12:50 p.m. on Washington Post Radio, 107.7 FM/1500 AM.

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