How Paycheck Fairness Can Get You Fired
Policy + Politics

How Paycheck Fairness Can Get You Fired


Like many publishers struggling during the recession of the early 1980s, Time magazine needed to cut costs as advertising revenue declined. The magazine’s fixed costs like paper, printing and postage were also rising along with salaries. 

In those days, Time was the jewel of the publishing giant, Time, Inc. -- not because it made as much money as People, or had heft of Fortune or the heat of Sports Illustrated. Time was a star because it had real clout with presidents and politicians, with publishers and movie moguls, supported by an outstanding roster of top writers including art critic Robert Hughes, book critic, Stefan Kanfer and essayist Roger Rosenblatt. (Full disclosure—my husband, John Leo, was also part of this group, writing about society.)

Related: Obama, GOP Battle Over Bill on Pay Equity for Women

I mention the writers because the magazine had recently implemented a new word-processing system called XyWrite, which allowed management to measure the number of column inches a given writer had published over the course of a month or year.  McKinsey, the management consulting firm, was hired to evaluate exactly that – how productive a given writer had been.

They didn’t evaluate if the writer had a following; if the prose was exceptional; if his or her work was so highly regarded that it actually changed societal outcomes.  It was a game of inches.  If you didn’t write enough and blather on, you were put on the cut list.  Happily, Time management came to its senses when they saw who was getting the axe and abandoned the idea altogether.

What does this tale of misguided management have to do with the Paycheck Fairness Act?  Thirty years have passed since Time’s failed unfairness folly. Since then, technology is able to measure everything and everyone—from the value of a Fortune 500 CEO to the productivity of a check-out cashier.  For simplicity purposes, let’s use the check-out cashier as our first example.

Let’s say Jane Smith works at a local supermarket. She’s been there for 10 years and has received raises and commendations as employee of the month. Customers know her name—she’s friendly, she cares how she bags their eggs, she makes sure they get their coupons, etc. Then, the supermarket hires 18-year old John Jones, a new employee who Jane has been asked to train.

Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, John would earn the same amount as Jane. 

Related: Obama’s Greatest Challenge—A Jobs Policy for the Tech Age

Now let’s see what the supermarket manager does when Jane complains.  He decides that compensation will be based on productivity—that is, how many products you check out during your hours worked; how many customers you serve; etc. The cash register keeps the tally, so it’s easy to track who’s doing what. 

Jane has to speed it up in order to compete not only with the 18-year old who doesn’t care if the eggs are broken, but with her colleagues as well. Her customer service goes down the tubes.  With it, the job she liked, even though she didn’t make a lot of money. She just liked helping people.

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” complains that she was underpaid in relation to Joe Scarborough until Joe went to bat for her. The network could have made a similar “metrics” choice, since minute-by-minute ratings are commonplace in TV, along with Q ratings and Nielson’s. If the network came up with a pay formula based on those ratings, it’s possible that Mika would have to take a pay cut.

Name any profession, any job, and you can imagine how ugly it can get.  And how stupid.  Is “Morning Joe” a better show when Joe and Mika are on the air together?  Is that balance of male/female, left/right more attractive than either one hosting alone?  Probably.

Related: The Rise of Robots and the Decline of Jobs Is Here

If employers are pushed to the wall because of yet another bill that supposedly protects these poor, helpless people called women, who can’t possibly negotiate for themselves, they will create job descriptions that require performance metrics that make us all look like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory.  

The applicants for these replacement jobs are likely to be bought—not hired—from companies like Boston Dynamics, Google’s robotics company. Every time we make it harder for employers to succeed by imposing unreasonable standards on worker compensation, they’re more likely to turn to robots. Even The Economist has changed its tune on thinking that this new technology will create more jobs than it will destroy. A recent article, “Job destruction by robots could outweigh creation,” explains the risks facing employment.

At a time when jobs are just beginning to come back and Americans—both men and women—are digging out of the deep hole of the recession, why add another regulatory burden to employers who are already smothered in the do’s and don’ts of ‘human’ resources. Unless, of course, it’s just politics. If so, ladies, be careful what you wish for.

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