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Workplace conditions are worse for many, poll finds

Bigger workloads, lower pay and less generous benefits are among conditions reported by Californians in a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

May 31, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • More than a third of those surveyed said their workplace conditions had gotten worse in the last year. More than half said they or someone they knew had experienced reduced wages or hours at work.
More than a third of those surveyed said their workplace conditions had… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Longer hours, less pay, higher costs for benefits. Those are some of the ways the workplace has changed for many Californians in the wake of the economic downturn, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

More than a third of those surveyed said their workplace conditions had gotten worse in the last year. More than half said they or someone they know had experienced reduced wages or hours at work.

It's a natural consequence of an economic downturn — when layoffs occur, those left at work are asked to take on more responsibilities. They're loath to complain or leave because the unemployment rate is so high they fear they won't be able to find another job. The sluggishness of the economic recovery — jobless numbers released Friday are expected to show another month of slow growth — means that these conditions aren't likely to improve any time soon, economists say.

"When there's persistently high unemployment, employers don't have to pay big wage increases or improve conditions in order to keep you," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, who has not seen the poll data. "They don't have to give good packages to new workers when there's a queue around the block for every job."

One of the people surveyed in the USC Dornsife/Times poll was Antonio Oroczo, 60, a waiter from Monrovia. Oroczo says his workload has doubled, although he's getting paid less. Fewer customers are coming into the restaurant, so he doesn't get as many tips, yet his employer laid off so many workers that he and his colleagues have more responsibilities.

Oroczo receives health benefits but says the premiums have gone up about $30 a month. He now has a $30 co-pay for doctor's visits — he used to pay half that. He's also had his hours cut, meaning that he takes home less than he did when he worked 40-hour weeks or more.

"Thanks to my savings, I'm OK right now," he said. "But that's the only reason I can make it with fewer hours."

Reduced wages slow the economic recovery because consumers have less spending money and are more likely to fall behind on mortgage and car payments.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,002 registered voters in California May 17-21. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Polling was conducted jointly by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and American Viewpoint.

About 28% of people surveyed said they had to postpone making a major purchase in the last year. More than half said they or someone they knew were in that situation. Only 3% said they had fallen behind on mortgage payments or lost a house to foreclosure over the last year, bolstering the view that the worst of the state's housing crisis is over. But 42% said someone they know had fallen behind on payments or lost a house to foreclosure.

Respondents also reported reduced workplace benefits such as health coverage, vacation or sick leave. About 14% had experienced that personally; 42% said they or someone they knew had. In contrast, 17% said they had received a raise or increase in benefits, while only 34% said that was true for them or someone they knew.

Asked whether conditions in their workplace had gotten worse over the last year because of demands of higher productivity, 36% said they thought workplace conditions were worse. Nearly 50%, in contrast, said they were not worse.

Other data indicate that there's been a sharp drop in workers leaving their jobs voluntarily, a sign that people are too worried about the economy to move on. Just 2.1 million people left their jobs in March, down from 3 million in March 2007. Just 1.8 million left jobs in March 2010.

"Turnover is much less even if working conditions and wages have dropped," said Michael Bernick, the former head of the state Employment Development Department. "Workers are holding on to jobs at a much greater level, and that's likely to continue for some time."

Ben Manesh of Encino says workplace conditions have gotten worse over the last year — and he's an employer. He works as a construction engineering consultant and also employs a part-time worker who helps him on projects. The worker is making half of what he would have four years ago, Manesh said. Manesh also cut back on office space and stopped paying into his retirement accounts recently to save money.

"I've been working longer hours because I can't afford to hire anybody. I've had to charge a lot less to get projects," said Manesh, who has worked in the industry since 1988. "This is the severest that I can remember."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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