Attendees line up for an interview with a prospective employer at a job fair in Washington, August 6, 2009. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
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Watch closely: I’m about to demystify the sleight-of-hand by which good jobs were transformed into bad jobs, full-time workers with benefits into freelancers with nothing, during the dark days of the Great Recession.
First, be aware of what a weird economic downturn and recovery this has been. From the end of an “average” American recession, it ordinarily takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak. But in June 2013—four full years after the official end of the Great Recession—we had recovered only 6.6 million jobs, or just three-quarters of the 8.7 million jobs we lost.
Here’s the truly mysterious aspect of this “recovery”: 21 percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less. But 58 percent of the jobs regained fall into that category. A common explanation for that startling statistic is that the bad jobs are coming back first and the good jobs will follow.
But let me suggest another explanation: the good jobs are here among us right now—it’s just their wages, their benefits and the long-term security that have vanished.
Consider the experiences of two workers I initially interviewed for my book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 percent Live in the Great Recession and you’ll see just how some companies used the recession to accomplish this magician’s disappearing trick.
Ina Bromberg genuinely likes to outfit people. Trim and well dressed herself, Ina sells petites at the Madison Avenue flagship store of a designer brand boutique with several hundred outlets. Even I had heard of the label. I had to ask what its exact place in the fashion hierarchy was, though. “We fall into a niche below Barney’s-Bergdorf-Chanel,” she explained.
In the course of a twenty-year career, Ina, now in her sixties, had been the company’s top-earning national sales associate more than once. Her loyal clients return each season saying, “You know what I like. What have you got for me?”
When I first met her during the Great Recession, however, her hours had been cut back. “They’ve moved the entire sales staff onto flexible schedules,” she explained. “On Thursday, we are told what our schedule will be for the following week. When they told me my new hours that first week, it was down to ten. I said, ‘Why don’t you just lay me off? I can collect unemployment.’ And [my boss] said, ‘No, no, it won’t be this way every week.’”
“Maybe this is their way of sharing the work in order to keep the experienced people till the recession is over,” I suggested. That used to be standard practice during a downturn.