Workers, take note: If you’re stressed about your paltry paycheck, you have lots of company.
Low pay again tops the list as the biggest stressor for working Americans as it has for the past four years. Even as the U.S. economy finally is growing, Americans are stressed about what we earn. Our costs are rising, raises stagnating and workloads increasing. We are stressed about being stuck in jobs that pay less than our income just five years ago and maddened by paychecks that don’t reflect our contributions.
While we were willing to put up with pay angst when unemployment was high, the stress of the flat-paycheck recovery is now weighing on us, according to the 2014 Workplace Stress Survey by Nielsen on behalf of Everest College, a post-secondary-education company offering career training programs.
“I think a lot of it has to do with what’s happening in the workforce today,” said Wendy Cullen, Everest's vice president of employer development. “Workers in the U.S. feel like we’re still in a recession.”
Nancy Joseph experiences stress every time she sits down to pay bills. Joseph, a 38-year-old Miami nursing assistant and mother of two preteens, cringes as she decides which bill she will pay late for the month.
Joseph says she hasn’t had a raise in four years. Two years ago, her hours at the rehabilitation center where she works were cut from 40 a week to 35. “I work so hard for my paycheck, but it’s still too little to take care of all the bills,” Joseph says. Her husband drives at forklift for a cargo company and makes just above minimum wage.
Joseph now has a plan. If she can balance it, she wants to go back to school to get skills that will lead to a higher paying nursing position: “I really need to make more money.”
Lower paid workers — those who make less than $50,000 — particularly are anxious about their paychecks, the stress survey found. Unfortunately, that represents much more of the workforce today: Since the official end of the Great Recession, low-wage jobs (those that pay less than $16 an hour) have grown nearly three times as fast as better-paying jobs, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Many of these workers who lost their higher salary during the recession are mothers and fathers who feel fortunate to now take home a paycheck, but still don’t make enough to feed their kids and cover child care. They are stressed juggling jobs and home life.
As of the first quarter of 2014, retail sales and cashier are the largest occupations with unpredictable schedules and an average pay of only about $12.20 and $9.82 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Mothers and fathers are trying to put food on the table and give their children a better life,” says Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for National Partnership for Women & Families . “That is a challenging thing to do in an economy where there are multiple workers for every job opening and people still don’t have the bargaining power to ask for more money.”
Of course, it is not just low-wage workers who are stressed over pay. Workers at all income levels are frustrated that their workloads have increased but they haven’t seen a raise or hiring of more workers. Even as revenues have improved, for the past two years pay raises at private employers have hovered at around 2.8 percent and are expected to be only about 2.9 percent in 2014, according to global services firm Towers Watson. At the same time, the cost of living has gone up with housing, gas and food prices rising.
Career experts suggest we get aggressive and creative to fatten our paychecks. For skilled workers, the best route may be a new job. “One factor has decreased: the fear of being fired or laid off,” says Cullen of Everest. “Now that there are more jobs, people aren’t afraid to start looking, but there is still a big question as to whether it is better someplace else.”
This may be the time to find out. “Slowly, companies are starting to compete for talent again and add to their headcount,” said Matt Shore, president of Steven Douglas Associates, a South Florida executive recruiting firm specializing in finance, accounting and information technology. “People who are in stagnant jobs are starting to look around and, in some cases, the market finally is telling them they can do better.”
For those stressed by low pay because of underemployment, negotiation may be necessary. After losing his marketing position at a bank, Jorge Espinosa saw his finances fray as he spent month after month in a job search. Now in a job that pays much lower than his previous one, his credit card debt has piled up. Espinosa says he has begun a new search but notices job ads reflect far lower salaries than what he previously earned. “It’s stressful to think I may be locked into a lower salary for another few years.”
Rather than get discouraged, one CEO suggests having a conversation with your boss. Most employers still have the mindset that workers are fortunate to have a job, admits Michael Rose, CEO of Mojo Media Labs, a Dallas Marketing Agency. However, Rose says certain arguments could justify a raise: “Come to your boss armed with information. Maybe you’re doing more than what is in the scope of the job description. Maybe you just got a certification. Maybe you can work on project or learn new skill set that will allow you to start in a new role that pays better.”
Even if negotiations don’t pan out, there is hope. Recruiters say salaries in some occupations are creeping toward pre-recession levels. Terri Davis, a Miami recruiter for a global software company that specializes in IT solutions for the travel industry, said that in her industry, job offers are about 20 percent higher than two years ago. Davis says job seekers also have a little room for pay negotiation: “When an employer extends an offer, they are evaluating it, and if they don’t feel it’s competitive enough, they are questioning the potential for a bonus — and getting it.”
All of us have some control over our paychecks, depending on how much we are willing to invest in ourselves, by adding to our skills, Cullen says. “I don't think you can ever eliminate all the factors that cause workplace anxiety, but as individuals, we can definitely create a plan of action to improve our careers and change our lives.”
Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on work life issues.